When Jack Layton participates in Harry's Spring Run-Off in Toronto next month, he'll be just one of thousands of participants raising money for prostate-cancer research programs at Princess Margaret Hospital. But walking five kilometres on April 3 isn't the only thing the New Democratic Party leader, who was diagnosed with the disease in December, is doing to help find better treatment options.
In early February, Mr. Layton joined 70 other men in the Survivorship Exercise Program, a pilot project to study the relationship between physical activity and prostate-cancer-cell growth and survival rate. It operates out of the Princess Margaret Hospital Prostate Centre, where he is receiving treatment.
"I heard about it from my doctor, John Trachtenberg," said Mr. Layton, 59. "I had met him 18 years ago when he was a member of the prostate-cancer team during my father's illness. Little did I know."
The SEP started in 2009 with research assistants conducting a small study led by Daniel Santa Mina, a surgical oncology research assistant at the Prostate Centre. The program offers patients a lifestyle service and fitness assessment with a home-based exercise regime and follow-ups at 12, 24 and 48 weeks.
"Research trials are conducted to examine the effects of specific exercise programs on health-related quality of life, fatigue and physical fitness for men with prostate cancer," Mr. Santa Mina explained in an e-mail. "Additionally, the SEP is investigating the effect of exercise on fundamental physiological processes that may mitigate tumour growth and progression."
A study from the University of California Los Angeles published nine years ago, which included dietary intervention, revealed a 30 per cent slower growth in cancer cells for a group of exercisers compared with non-exercisers..
"Generally, exercise appears to affect levels of circulating hormones such as testosterone and IGF-1, which contribute to prostate cancer development and progression," Mr. Santa Mina said. "Exercise (even without dietary changes) can modify cell-growth-regulating processes in the body, having an inhibitory effect."
More research is required in the field, experts say, but the discoveries made so far have already changed the way doctors address exercise for prostate-cancer patients.
"It used to be patients would rest, but then the body de-conditions," Mr. Santa Mina said. Now, cancer specialists recommend physical activity before, during and after treatment.
Besides possibly slowing the progress of the disease, exercise has other more immediate and tangible benefits. Weight-bearing exercise, for one, is important to ensure muscle mass is maintained to support bones and joints and to achieve a healthy weight or keep weight down.
Exercise is also known to reduce fatigue associated with cancer therapy. And physical activity has been shown to boost cancer patients' moods, sometimes offering drug-free relief from depression when the mind and body feel worn out. The feeling of vitality that exercise brings helps patients maintain healthy habits, which some say they depend upon to overcome the ordeal.
"Exercise has as much to do with mental attitude - the positive mindset - that you ultimately need for surviving cancer," Mr. Layton said.
The politician was physical active before participating in SEP, cycling and strength training six days a week. He is continuing to exercise while undergoing treatment, with a few modifications.
"There was not really a lot of don'ts," he said of the program, "which was good news." (Each SEP patient follows a custom-designed program.)
Mr. Santa Mina advises prostate-cancer patients who are undergoing therapy to talk about physical activity with a physician. Intensity level should be moderate: He prescribes cardio performed at 60 to 85 per cent of maximum heart rate, and strength training performed between 60 and 70 per cent of one-rep maximum.
While recovering from surgery, men should limit biking, heavy weight lifting and swimming for eight weeks to facilitate healing, he adds.
"I'm thankful for the study," Mr. Layton said. "Otherwise you're making it up on your own, and chances are you missed something."
Special to The Globe and Mail