Running (and Eating) Away from Cancer

Sue Wharfe was diagnosed in 2011 with stage II breast cancer. Her doctors at Yale Cancer Center, where she received treatment, referred her to a research study on nutrition and exercise for breast cancer survivors. Sue jumped at the chance to participate. She hoped it would help her to lose weight and improve her diet. “I was the type of person who would join a gym, feel good about joining, but then never go. I had good intentions but following through with them was a challenge,” she explained.

Research shows that obesity is associated with worse survival from breast cancer, but more research is needed to develop and implement methods to help cancer survivors make positive lifestyle changes. Sue was one of 100 women who participated in a study led by Melinda Irwin, Ph.D., M.P.H., professor of epidemiology at Yale University, aiming to address this question. The study—called the Lifestyle, Exercise, and Nutrition Study, or LEAN—showed that in-person and telephone counseling led to clinically significant weight loss among participants. The researchers also gained clues about the biological effects of weight on breast cancer. Participants who received counseling experienced a 30% decrease in C-reactive protein, a marker of systemic inflammation that is associated with poorer outcomes in women with breast cancer.

Sue was randomly assigned to the in-person intervention. With encouragement from the registered dietician and oncology nutrition specialist assigned to her in the study, Sue took up running with a friend, starting with 20 minutes a day, and began to feel the benefits of the activity in about 3 weeks. From a diet that contained too much fat, she switched to a “rainbow plate” with more fruits and vegetables. She benefited from the intervention, which supported her as she was trying to lose weight, a change she appreciates to this day.

The changes also helped with the stiffness and achiness in her joints that accompanied her aromatase inhibitor therapy, which she recently learned she needs to continue taking for another 5 years. In fact, additional NCI-funded research by Melinda’s team found that exercise reduces joint pain associated with aromatase inhibitors.

LEAN was enabled by NCI’s Cancer Center Support Grant to Yale, which provides resources to support exceptional clinical care and conduct transdisciplinary research. Melinda is appreciative of NCI, which has enabled her to conduct some of the largest trials investigating the interactions between weight, diet, and physical activity in relation to cancer. She is also part of NCI’s Transdisciplinary Research on Energetics and Cancer (TREC) initiative. “NCI is the only organization that provides longer-term funding to support this type of research, which aims to change paradigms with the goal of lowering people's risk of developing or dying from cancer,” said Melinda.

Sue can attest to the efficacy of this intervention. Years later, she continues to jog and eat healthfully, still mindful of the better behaviors she learned from Melinda’s study. Her good habits have rubbed off on her husband and kids, too. She doubts she would have made these lifestyle improvements without LEAN. “It has led to a better, healthier life,” she added.