Pancreatic Cancer Patients To Trial Exercise Treatment

Northern Ireland patients dealing with pancreatic cancer are set to be the first in the UK to trial a new innovative exercise programme to aid their recovery.

It comes as researchers from Queen's University Belfast have been awarded over £100,000 from Pancreatic Cancer UK, the charity's first ever investment for a Northern Ireland based project.

Researchers will work extensively with local pancreatic cancer patients who have had surgery to design bespoke exercise programs tailored toward managing each individual's symptoms.

Surgery is the only cure for pancreatic cancer but it can have a traumatic impact on patients. The procedure involves removing all or part of the pancreas and making major changes to the digestive system, meaning patients can experience serious side effects - including pain, fatigue and anxiety - in addition to the effects of chemotherapy. The burden of these symptoms can damage a patient's recovery as well their long-term health and wellbeing. 

Exercise has previously been shown to benefit patients with other cancers such as breast and prostate, but the two-year study by Queen's University will mark the first time it has been trialled with those treated for pancreatic cancer. Patients will be supported in undertaking resistance and aerobic exercise at their own pace, alongside post-operative chemotherapy. It is hoped that a successful trial in Belfast will see the project expand to other sites in the UK benefiting more patients.

Pancreatic cancer has the lowest survival of all common cancers, with less than seven per cent of people with the disease in Northern Ireland living for five years. 

Local patient Tom Hawthorne from Dromore in County Down has credited cycling with aiding his recovery and allowing him to cope with the side effects of treatment. The 61-year-old explained: "I was told that it was going to be a pretty tough operation but at that stage I did not fully grasp what that actually meant. For me, the operation was totally devastating - it was really tough, physically and psychologically.
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"From my first day out of intensive care I was determined to give it my best shot after speaking to my surgeon. From blowing that little pipe to keep the ball up, to family helping me around the corridors and friends helping me to the park, it all helped me so much. Then eventually getting back on my bike. All this for me made me so much stronger in every way and had a massive impact on my recovery. Not everyone can do it but it's well worth doing your best. You will feel the benefit."

Dr Chris MacDonald, Head of Research at Pancreatic Cancer UK, said: "Research into pancreatic cancer has been grossly underfunded for decades, stifling innovation and delaying the breakthroughs we so badly need to see. The potential positive impact of this project devised by the team at Queen's University Belfast is hugely exciting and I am delighted it is our first-ever funded research in Northern Ireland.

"While it can be lifesaving, the combination of such extensive surgery followed by chemotherapy can take a heavy toll. It may sound counterintuitive, but exercise could be key to mitigating many of the symptoms that affect a patient's quality of life. We are determined to explore innovative ideas such as this one to ensure patients can make the fullest possible recovery."

The research at Queen's University Belfast is one of six promising new projects to receive a grant from Pancreatic Cancer UK's Research Innovation Fund in 2019.

Dr Gillian Prue, Lead Researcher at Queen's University Belfast, commented: "This is a fantastic opportunity for people with pancreatic cancer in NI and we are very grateful to Pancreatic Cancer UK for their support. We hope that by undertaking a supervised exercise programme during chemotherapy patients may avoid an almost inevitable decline in function. Increasing activity levels may help patients tolerate chemotherapy treatment and reduce treatment side effects. This is the first time a study such as this has been undertaken in the UK, so we will be working very closely with our patients to ensure the programme is achievable and meets their needs."


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