Updated: Dec 16, 2019
Bill Gillis has always been an athlete, running and lifting weights for most of his 71 years.
That helped more than he could’ve imagined when he was diagnosed with Stage 4 abdominal cancer in 2015 and given an 11 percent chance to live.
“I never missed a workout and had no side effects through six rounds of chemo and 15 days of radiation,” said Bill, above with his wife, Isabelle, during a break from racing at the National Senior Games in Albuquerque.
“My doctor says I’m wasting his time whenever I show up in his office,” said the business consultant, who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and is thriving in his fourth year of remission.
Exercise vs. Cancer: The Research
Bill is not alone.
Research proves that exercise is good for our health at any age. Experts say it also helps prevent cancer and lower its risk of recurring. And regular exercise benefits cancer survivors the same way it helps the general population – by reducing obesity and blood pressure, lowering risk of heart attack, stroke, and diabetes, and more.
Strength training is particularly important to help maintain muscle and bone density. People generally lose muscle mass with age, and cancer exacerbates the decline. Chemotherapy can cause women to lose 10 times as much bone density as normal, according to Josie Gardiner, a personal trainer who co-authored "The Breast Cancer Survivor's Fitness Plan.”
Some patients also gain fat from treatment. We know that strength and aerobic exercise are great for fighting weight gain.
The American Cancer Society recommends most adults get "at least 30 to 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity at least five days a week." That reduces the risk of cancer in the first place, and is helpful for cancer patients as well.
The National Cancer Institute shares powerful data about how exercise can reduce the risk of certain cancers:
Breast cancer by 20 to 80 percent
Endometrial cancer by 20 to 40 percent
Colon cancer by 30 to 40 percent
Australia Issues National Guidelines
The Clinical Oncology Society of Australia last year became the first national cancer organization to issue formal guidelines that recommend exercise as a part of treatment for all cancer patients.
The organization said:
Exercise should be a part of standard care for cancer patients to fight the disease and side effects of treatment.
Treatment teams should promote physical activity so patients meet exercise guidelines.
Patients should be referred to an exercise physiologist or physical therapist.
“If we could turn the benefits of exercise into a pill it would be demanded by patients, prescribed by every cancer specialist and subsidized by government,” said Dr. Prue Cormie, author of the organization’s report. “It would be seen as a major breakthrough in cancer treatment.”
Inspiring Others to Exercise
Bill Gillis knows he’s setting a good example for others young and old to exercise.
Isabelle, 77, is proud, too, when people at their community gym ask her husband for fitness advice.
“He’s a role model for so many younger people,” she says. “Every morning, they’re constantly coming up to him, asking questions – How did you do it? And saying thanks for being the inspiration.”
Sources: Harvard Medical School, The American Cancer Society, The National Cancer Institute, WebMD