Female Cancer Patients May See More Rapid Decline in Physical Function Than Peers

Going through cancer treatments can lead to some long-term health issues, including problems with the heart, lungs, bones, and nerves. A recent study finds it may also contribute to accelerated aging.

New research funded by the National Cancer Institute compared the rates of physical function decline – a marker of biological aging – between postmenopausal cancer patients and women of the same age who had never been diagnosed with cancer.


Elizabeth Cespedes Feliciano, the study’s first author and research scientist at the Kaiser Permanente Northern California Division of Research, says, “We know that cancer is a disease of aging, and that as we grow older our risk of getting cancer increases. What has only been appreciated more recently is that cancer and its treatments can actually speed up the biological processes that are associated with aging.”

Her team’s findings, published in JAMA Oncology, reinforce this, showing that women who have had cancer are at a higher risk for accelerated physical decline. The data came from more than 50,000 participants in the Women’s Health Initiative (WHI), an ongoing national health study focusing on risk, prevention, and early detection of serious health conditions.

The research team for this study included data from more than 9,000 women who participated in WHI and had been diagnosed with breast, colorectal, lung, or endometrial cancer, along with more than 45,000 similar participants with no history of cancer. Their physical function was gauged through their responses to questions about activity level, strength, and self-care.


The researchers found that all cancer patients saw more rapid declines in physical function after beginning treatment, though there were variations on how bad this was based on the type and stage of cancer. The fastest declines were in women who had lung, endometrial, or colorectal cancer that had spread to lymph nodes, tissue, or organs.

For breast cancer patients with spread to lymph nodes, meanwhile, there was a decline of nearly four times the rate seen in women without cancer. If it was caught earlier, though, when it was still localized, the decline was twice as fast as healthy women.

These issues were found to persist over time, with most of the cancer survivors still seeing lower physical function at the five-year mark than their cancer-free peers.

The team says their findings should encourage research into interventions to preserve physical function, both during and after treatment. They also hope to learn more about early signs of this physical function decline so that women at high-risk can work to mitigate the issue.


Cespedes Feliciano says, “The first step is to show that this accelerated aging in physical function happens and persists over time, which is what this study did. Now, we want to see if we can identify early predictors of this accelerated aging. If we can, we might be able to identify the women who might benefit most from rehabilitation programs for cancer survivors or even develop interventions during the treatment period to mitigate aging effects.”

For those living with advanced cancer, the team also suggests working with their care team to create some achievable goals for rehabilitation.

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