Fighting fatigue in cancer survivors

By adapting methods used in elite athletics, UCalgary researchers seek to understand the mechanisms that cause fatigue.

By Don McSwiney
January 2016

“What is fatigue?” Guillaume Millet, PhD, repeats the question while shaking his head. “That question is too broad to answer. Tell me who you are, and what you’re doing, and where you are doing it, and then I might be able to start to give you an answer.”

Millet, a researcher who works out of the Faculty of Kinesiology’s Human Performance Lab, has studied weariness in all its guises, from those acutely fatigued from running ultra-marathons to patients too tired to move due to disease.

Thanks, in part, to a grant from the Canada Foundation for Innovation, Millet and fellow kinesiology health and exercise physiology researcher Juan Murias, PhD, are studying neuromuscular and cardiovascular functions with the goal of improving the overall quality of life of cancer survivors and prolonging independent living in the elderly in Canada.

“We like to say that exercise is medicine."


Cancer-related fatigue affects 60 to 90 per cent of patients

“We like to say that exercise is medicine, and the research has proven this is true,” says Millet, one of the world’s foremost experts on neuromuscular fatigue. “But if exercise is medicine, we need to do a better job on prescribing the right dose, and using the expertise that we have to get the best results for these populations in the shortest amount of time.”

To address fatigue in cancer survivors, researchers need to understand the objective causes of this symptom. Cancer-related fatigue, created by the disease and the brutal treatment that goes with it, affects between 60 and 90 per cent of patients. In addition, between 17 and 35 per cent of survivors will suffer from profound fatigue and a resulting decrease in quality of life for months or years. Besides the human cost, the financial implications for society of this loss of productivity are huge.  

Exercise fights the effects of aging

Research shows that Canadians become much less active as they age, which poses a real threat to health care since seniors are the fastest growing population in Canada.

Exercise fights the effects of aging on cardiovascular health and also helps to prevent diseases like hypertension, diabetes, obesity, heart disease and stroke. Exercise also helps seniors to maintain quality of life, by reducing fatigue symptoms and increasing cardiovascular fitness, which is one of the strongest predictors of independent living.

A unique approach to prescribing the right kinds of exercise 

The researchers are adapting methods that have been used by elite athletes to understand the mechanisms that cause fatigue. 

“Part of the interest of studying fatigue in athletes is the methodological work on fatigue measurement since we can see huge deficits from the central nervous system in athletes that can also be observed in patients,” says Millet.

It was Millet’s initial work with high-performance athletes that led to the development of a new test that is not only accurate but also more relevant to daily life.

Millet says the Human Performance Lab research will be unique in that it combines his expertise in neuromuscular function with Murias’ knowledge of cardiovascular physiology.

“This complementary combination of our research interests will allow us a much broader consideration of what is creating fatigue and how we can improve cardiovascular health in these frail populations,” says Millet. “And I think it will provide a unique approach to prescribing the right kinds of exercise in the future.”

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