Nutrition and exercise linked to cancer treatment success

What if something as simple as a tailored nutrition and exercise program could influence the outcome of cancer treatment? According to one Applied Health Sciences professor, it’s possible.

Marina MourtzakisFor the last ten years Marina Mourtzakis (pictured left), an expert in nutrition and physiology in the Department of Kinesiology, has been studying why cancer patients lose muscle and gain fat during chemotherapy and radiation—a change that, for some cancers, leaves patients at risk for adverse events during treatment, while in other cancers, may increase the risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes later on.

“We’re trying to gain a better understanding of how the body changes with treatment and what we can do about it,” said Mourtzakis, who is collaborating with UW WELL-FIT, a group exercise program for individuals undergoing chemotherapy, radiation, or hormonal therapy for cancer.

Body fat and muscle mass affects treatment outcomes

A change in body fat and muscle mass is typical in patients receiving treatment for cancer, especially those diagnosed with breast or prostate cancer.

“It could be the treatment itself, it could be because patients are less active because they are fatigued, it could be because their eating habits change, the types of drugs they are receiving, or because inflammation is elevated or a combination of these factors,” explained Mourtzakis. “It’s a complex issue.”

For cancer patients, a loss of lean muscle has implications far beyond a change in physique.

“Patients that lose muscle have a different treatment response,” said Mourtzakis. “Some chemotherapy types are mainly metabolized by lean tissue, but if a patient doesn’t have much, they could experience adverse reactions.”

Adverse reactions often translate into treatment delays, and ultimately less successful treatment outcomes.

Body fat and muscle mass also have a huge impact on quality of life in survivorship.

“If a patient has diabetes or heart problems, they might not be able to do the daily activities they once did or they may have other health problems to deal with, such as the risk of cancer recurrence,” Mourtzakis said.

A new approach

Quality of life is paramount for Mourtzakis. To help patients retain lean muscle mass and by extension, improve their treatment outcomes, she is working to develop tailored nutrition and exercise programs.

“Nutrition and exercise work synergistically. You don’t get the best effects from one or the other, you need both, especially in cancer populations,” said Mourtzakis.

Surprisingly, Mourtzakis’ big picture approach to treatment is unique in the world of cancer research.

“As a society, our biggest focus has been on eradicating the tumour. But over the years I’ve realized that we can’t look after the tumour if we don’t look after the patient.”