Prehab - fighting cancer starts before treatment

There is a growing body of scientific evidence on the benefits of exercise for newly diagnosed cancer patients


Facing a cancer diagnosis is a difficult experience, and pre-habilitation can help you prepare for upcoming treatments and achieve an easier, more complete recovery.

What is cancer prehab?

Cancer pre-habilitation - or prehab - is a program that involves exercise, nutritional counselling and psychological advice specifically designed to support cancer patients in their treatment journey. 

The program generally involves a multidisciplinary team of specialist oncologists, exercise physiologists, dietitians and clinical psychologists who work together to provide practical advice and guidance to patients on how to implement change in their lives that will support their cancer treatment.

'Prehab helps you use the time between diagnosis and treatment most effectively by preparing you physically and emotionally', says Harvard Medical School associate professor and cancer survivor, Julie Silver, in her book After Cancer Treatment: Heal Faster, Better, Stronger.

Prehab addresses different issues to rehab. Whereas rehabilitation post cancer treatment has a strong focus on the psychological and practical aspects of living with cancer - for example, going back to work at the end of the treatment - a prehab program focuses on optimising the patient's health through diet and exercise before and during the cancer treatment.

Prehab may reduce time spent at hospital, surgery complication and cancer recurrence

Research suggests that patients who are better conditioned through nutrition and exercise do better during and post treatment, tend to tolerate treatment better and experience less side effects.

Breast surgeon and cancer specialist, Miss Jane O'Brien explains the benefits of a tailored prehab program to assist patients start eating healthy and exercising.  

For breast patients in particular, prehab is an important tool for maintaining a healthy weight during and post cancer treatment. 

'The majority of breast cancer patients tend to put on weight during chemotherapy and it is often very difficult to shift that weight afterwards', says Miss Jane O'Brien. 

'The risk of breast cancer recurrence is higher for people who are overweight. One of the advantages of a formal nutrition and exercise education, and a tailored diet and exercise program at the beginning of treatment, is to help patients optimise their performance and minimise weight gain before they become deconditioned', she adds. 

Increasing fitness before surgery may also reduce the length of hospital stay as well as the risk of complications after surgery. 

Cancer prehabilitation in Australia 

Cancer prehab programs are still fairly new to Australia, so ask your doctor what services are available at your treatment centre, or through referral from your specialist. 

Funding may be available through private health insurance. Ask if your plan includes access to allied health practitioners - dietitian, exercise physiologist and clinical psychologist - that will form part of your prehab program.