What Benefits Does Exercise Give to Cancer Patients?

UPMC Hillman Cancer Center Exercise Oncology Program helps get cancer patients moving and healing.
Exercise Oncology1


Nearly 40% of men and women will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lives, according to the National Cancer Institute

Did you know that exercise can help manage the side effects of chemotherapy, make treatment more effective and reduce depression rates in cancer patients?

Kathryn Schmitz, leading researcher in exercise oncology, joined Shadyside’s UPMC Hillman Cancer Center in October to help patients with their own exercise plans to make their treatment more effective.

She came to UPMC from the Penn State Cancer Institute at Penn State University College of Medicine in Hershey, where she was the founding director of an exercise medicine unit.

“The field of exercise oncology goes back to the 1940s,” Schmitz says. “They did animal studies where they exercised rodents and their cancers grew more slowly.”

In addition to introducing cancer patients to exercise, Schmitz is conducting studies to determine the impact of exercise on different patients, particularly women ages 65 and older slated to begin chemotherapy for breast cancer, exercise in advanced cancer patients and a cancer prevention trial to get rural patients to become more physically active.

Schmitz says with advancements in treatment and technology, more people are living with and beyond cancer. 

“This is a field that has come into its own,” she says. “We know exercise is useful for a number of symptoms and side effects such as fatigue, anxiety, depression, health-related quality of life, physical function (carrying groceries, walking up stairs), bone health and sleep, and breast cancer-related lymphedema (swelling).”

Exercise can help cancer patients improve other conditions associated with their treatment such as increased blood pressure and inflammation. Schmitz adds that these conditions are associated with more hospitalizations in cancer patients.

The American College of Sports Medicine now has guidelines that note patients should be referred to some type of exercise program,” Schmitz says. “The American Cancer Society and the American Society of Clinical Oncology have both issued statements that agree with these guidelines.”

Schmitz adds only 15% of cancer patients show that they have been referred to an exercise program by their oncologist.

“My goal through the UPMC Hillman Cancer Center is to double that,” she says.  

A base recommendation for patients is to get 30 minutes of aerobic exercise, such as walking, three times a week, and two days of anaerobic exercise, such as weight lifting.

At Hillman, each patient is given a triage survey “that helps us know how to help them,” she explains. “This isn’t just for people who are well enough to run a 5K; this is for every single patient. We meet them where they are.”

Once a patient finishes the survey, the exercise oncology team will determine if they need to be referred to community-based resources to exercise on their own, an individual program in the small gym at Hillman or refer them to physical therapy.

“On average, 40% of our patients need physical therapy, 40% are referred to our gym and 20% are well enough to exercise on their own,” Schmitz notes.

She adds in the short time the program has been open, they have seen upward of 150 patients. 

Schmitz notes UPMC is the first health care system in the country to use this triage process, and feels the system sees the value in creating a path for other systems to imitate.

Schmitz is joined by Andrew Chongaway, physical therapist and UPMC Hillman Research Health & Fitness Coordinator, who helps patients at Hillman with individualized regimens. For instance, one patient had pretty significant peripheral neuropathy (a type of damage to the nervous system), and Chongaway was able to show her balance exercises to help her feel better.

“We know from thousands of studies that have been done that even if a patient is feeling quite poorly, exercise helps them feel better,” Schmitz says. “A rule of thumb is to try it for 10 minutes. If you feel worse, then it’s time to stop. If you feel the same or better, keep going. It also allows patients to do something for themselves to give them a little bit of control through their cancer journeys.”


Amy Vanbuskirk, 89, of Point Breeze is a current exercise oncology patient in the program.

Vanbuskirk was diagnosed with lung cancer five years ago. She says she was doing well on medication, but had to stop taking it when she developed an adverse reaction to it. Her cancer has spread to her liver. 

Vanbuskirk is now being treated with IV monoclonal antibodies at Hillman and exercises while she is waiting for her infusions.

She is receiving balance exercises because she doesn’t want to fall at home and wants to continue to garden. 

“I think this program is terrific,” she adds. “Cancer patients do much better when they exercise. We spend a lot of time waiting for bloodwork and things when we are getting treatment; it’s great to be able to get some exercise, especially with someone like Andrew. He knows immediately what you need to be able to function.” 

Categories: BeWell