In a single clinic visit, Elizabeth O’Donnell, MD, counsels cancer patients on how to benefit from the powerful, positive effects of exercise and other lifestyle changes.

Exercise can help cancer patients both feel better and do better and now Massachusetts General Hospital has a new clinic for those interested in learning how. Under the direction of Mass General Cancer Center oncologist Elizabeth O’Donnell, MD, the Lifestyle Medicine Clinic officially launched recently at Mass General in Boston and at its neighborhood health center in Waltham.

 There is growing evidence that exercise helps cancer patients both during treatment and afterwards.

In addition to exercise’s cardiovascular health, mood and weight-control benefits, there is growing evidence that exercise helps cancer patients both during treatment and afterwards. “We know with breast cancer, for example, that those who meet the recommended 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise weekly have a 50 percent lower chance of cancer recurrence and mortality,” says Dr. O’Donnell, who is also associate director of Mass General Cancer Center’s Survivorship Program. “That’s a big number. The numbers are similar for colon cancer patients, too.”

Dr. O'Donnell helps patients use exercise to get back their strength and life enjoyment.
Dr. O’Donnell helps patients use exercise to get back their strength and life enjoyment.

Many patients ask what exercises they can do or dietary changes they can make to improve their odds, Dr. O’Donnell says. But medical appointments, by necessity, focus on treatment progress and the latest imaging results. “People with a cancer diagnosis have a lot to deal with and many appointments,” she points out. “This is a one-time visit with me to provide exercise counseling for those who want it, not something they must do.”

In addition to conducting pioneering research focused sharply on the goal of eradicating cancer, the Mass General Cancer Center is known for its scientifically advanced and compassionate care. This starts with diagnosis and treatment and extends beyond cancer into survivorship. Lifestyle medicine–such as this new initiative to offer exercise counseling–helps patients cope and recover successfully, perhaps becoming even healthier than they were before cancer.

Part of the clinic’s mission will be to conduct clinical research to better understand the benefits of exercise  that apply to each type of cancer.

Exercise Decreases Fatigue

Dr. O’Donnell is hoping more patients will realize that they can safely reap the benefits of exercise. Cancer patients often experience fatigue and may think that exercise is the last thing they feel like doing. But, in fact, “exercise decreases this fatigue,” she says.

Each cancer is different and the benefits and the type of exercise prescribed will likely vary, she says. Part of the clinic’s mission will be to conduct clinical research to better understand the benefits that apply to each type of cancer. She also hopes to collaborate with other Mass General specialists—in cardiology, sports medicine and physical therapy, for example—who are using exercise in treatment and research.

Dr. O’Donnell’s clinical practice specializes in multiple myeloma, an incurable bone marrow cancer that can be controlled by lifelong treatment with a steroid called dexamethasone.  But a side effect of long-term exposure to this steroid is a decrease in muscles and an increase in fat. “I’ve seen patients who have been on steroids a long time or been through chemotherapy who have difficulty rising from a chair or even preparing food,” she says.  “I’d like to help them use exercise to get back their strength and life enjoyment, whether that’s to play with their grandchildren or go on walks.”

“I want to share exercise’s health benefits with others and help my patients find activities that spark them.”

Adapted to Lifestyle and Limitations

Patients who come to her for lifestyle counseling are first assessed to ensure it is safe to exercise. She asks about life before cancer and what activities they’d like to be able to do again. Then she develops an exercise plan to help them reach their goals. Whether someone has exercised before or not at all, she adapts her exercise advice to their lifestyle and limitations.

They may also be pointed to other Mass General services. That may be the Weight Center for weight loss or the stress-reduction programs at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine.

For Dr. O’Donnell, exercise has been a longtime passion. She played four sports in high school and was All-American in lacrosse and All-Ivy in field hockey at Yale. She even tried to go professional as a tri-athlete before starting medical school. Now she mainly runs and, in the summer, bikes 20 miles each way to work. “I found myself through sports,” she acknowledges. “Now I want to share exercise’s health benefits with others and help my patients find activities that spark them.”

To learn more about the new Lifestyles Medicine Clinic and how you can support Dr. O’Donnell’s plans to expand its offerings, please contact us.