People who are diagnosed with head and neck cancers often lose weight and muscle during radiation treatment. One AICR-funded study is investigating whether strengthening exercises may help.
Head and neck cancer patients often lose weight and muscle mass. "A little over half of patients have already lost weight before they start treatment," explains researcher Laura Q. Rogers, MD, MPH, Professor of Internal Medicine at the Southern Illinois University School of Medicine in Springfield. "And the treatment has side effects that make it even more difficult to eat."
Those side effects can include mouth sores, difficulty in swallowing, changes in (or loss of) taste and nausea. A person's jaw may become stiff, making it more difficult to open the mouth wide. In addition, a person with head and neck cancer may not feel well from the treatment and/or the disease itself, making it difficult to get enthusiastic about exercise.
The combination of eating less and not exercising can quickly lead to a loss of lean muscle mass, says Dr. Rogers. The result is poor physical functioning, fatigue and reduced quality of life.
Some head and neck cancer patients burn calories faster than expected, adding to their weight loss, she points out. "We have a lot to learn about why this may occur. It may be the body fighting the tumor or responding to increased stress and inflammation caused by the tumor."
A 12-week study, called Resistance Training and Physical Function in Patients with Head and Neck Cancer (RETAIN), will include 44 patients. All of them will undergo radiation therapy and some may also receive chemotherapy. All the patients will receive weekly nutrition counseling with a dietitian.
Half the patients will be randomly assigned to participate in the resistance-training program twice a week for up to one hour. For the first six weeks, this strengthening program will take place at the same facility where they are receiving radiation treatment. They will continue the exercise at home for another six weeks, using resistance bands to strengthen their arms and legs. Patients who are too tired to stand will be able to do the exercises while sitting.
This new study is the first to look at total body training in head and neck cancer patients who are undergoing treatment, Dr. Rogers says. She says it expands upon findings from a previous study on upper body resistance training in head and neck cancer patients that reduced shoulder pain and disability and improved upper body strength and endurance.
The exercise professionals working with the patients are all certified by the American College of Sports Medicine as Cancer Exercise Trainers.
Dr. Rogers says, "We hope we can help them maintain their energy level so they don't get as fatigued, they'll retain more lean body mass and their quality of life will improve."