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PLANETS Cancer Charity is urging patients to focus on improving their fitness levels as the NHS contends with the ongoing challenges of Covid-19.


Neil Pearce, co-founder of PLANETS, which helps patients with pancreatic, liver, colorectal, abdominal and neuroendocrine cancer, said it was essential patients “take control of what they can” as the pandemic continues to impact services.


“While we have seen NHS cancer services show an amazing ability to adapt and contend with the huge disruption caused by Covid-19, there is no doubt some cancer patients have suffered due to uncertainty and changes to their care,” explained Mr Pearce, who specialises in pancreas, liver and neuroendocrine tumour surgery.


“With the omicron variant now posing another significant threat, it is going to add another level of stress and fear among those with cancer who are awaiting or undergoing treatment so it is vitally important they have a positive focus.


“That is why we are urging all cancer patients to take control of what they can and improve their levels of fitness as soon as they are able to as the benefit of it to recovery and outcomes is evident and it is something every individual has in their power to change.”


Mr Pearce spoke out following new research from his colleagues at University Hospital Southampton and the University of Southampton which found physical fitness before surgery for cancer of the upper gastrointestinal tract was an indicator of how well the patient recovered from surgery.


The study, published in the Journal of Surgical Oncology, also showed an association between poor fitness and survival a year after the operation, with a reduction in chest wall muscle structure and function linked with a lower chance of survival.


The same clinical research team devised the concept of ‘prehabilitation’ which helps patients recover from cancer surgery by increasing fitness levels before their operations – and Mr Pearce believes it has never been more important to emphasise its benefits.


“We know earlier this year that cancer groups had been reporting that large numbers of patients had experienced delays, cancellations or changes to their treatment throughout the pandemic and that is such a difficult and traumatic thing,” explained Mr Pearce.


“We know the NHS is working tirelessly to continue deliver the best possible cancer services but there is a limit to what it can achieve under the current circumstances – and we are regularly hearing about cancellations to surgery in the current circumstances.


“As a result of this it is vitally important patients keep focused and positive about fighting their cancer and do all they can to help themselves while clinical teams work hard behind the scenes to address pressures and delays.


“This research from the Southampton team, who are specialists in prehabilitation, is the latest in a long line of studies that demonstrate the importance of physical fitness prior to surgery or any cancer treatment and it is further cause for people to waste no time in devising a fitness plan now and into the new year.”


Mr Pearce pointed towards to the work of PLANETS and one of its founding members, neuroendocrine tumour patient Jo Green, a fitness instructor whose level of fitness allowed her clinical team to adopt a radical approach to her surgery and resulted in an early return to work, improved quality of life and has kept her disease under control 10 years later.


“Jo is a prime example of the way peak fitness can have a major impact on cancer care and quality of life and we are delighted she is currently completing a qualification in exercise specifically for cancer patients so we can help and support many others,” he said.


“Clearly with her job role Jo was in a good state of fitness already, however, people don’t need to reach such levels to see positive outcomes as just small improvements prior to surgery can make a big difference.


“That’s why our plea is for people to make that step and do what they can – there is no bigger incentive to increase fitness than to give yourself the chance of better outcomes from cancer surgery and treatment.”
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