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Dr Kerry Courneya

Dr Kerry Courneya

Kerry Courneya hopes his research will lead to structured exercise support programs for cancer survivors across Canada.

First, he has to prove that exercise can reduce the risk of a recurrence. With the NCIC Clinical Trials Group (NCIC-CTG), he is co-leading a groundbreaking study that could do just that.

“Many studies have shown that people who exercise more over the course of their lifetime have a lower risk of developing colon cancer in the first place,” says Dr Courneya.

“The big question now is whether exercise can reduce the risk of the disease coming back.”

The aptly named CHALLENGE trial will recruit about 1,000 colon cancer survivors in Canada and Australia – and support half of them in increasing their activity levels.

Support comes in the form of a state-of-the-art program of supervised exercise and behavioural support sessions designed by Dr Courneya. These will give people the tools they need to continue exercising on their own – whether it’s a walk, swim, jog or bike ride – over a 3-year period.

“We’re promoting any type of physical activity. The goal is to get people to increase their overall activity by about 2.5 hours of moderate intensity exercise or 1 hour and 15 minutes of vigorous exercise per week.”

Earlier research by Dr Courneya has found that many Canadian colon cancer survivors are inactive and overweight. “Even in healthy populations exercise adherence is a challenge,” he adds. “It’s not easy to keep people going.”

By monitoring participants over 10 years, the trial will determine if colon cancer recurs less often in people who increase and maintain their exercise. It will also assess whether exercise improves other important outcomes including quality of life, anxiety, depression, sleep and physical function.

“If the results are positive, I think the goal would be to try to roll out programs like this across the country,” says Dr Courneya, a professor and Canada Research Chair in Physical Activity and Cancer at the University of Alberta.

The CHALLENGE trial is the first of its kind in the world and poses all sorts of challenges for the research team. That’s why Dr Courneya is pleased the NCIC-CTG is leading and coordinating the trial. “We’ll have up to 20 different cancer centers on 2 continents, running the same studies so that we can get enough patients enrolled. You can imagine the amount of collaboration and coordination that needs to go on. We’re very fortunate to have this trial run through the NCIC-CTG so that we can answer these important questions.”

The NCIC Clinical Trials Group, based at Queen’s University, is one of the national programs and networks of the Canadian Cancer Society. With Society funding, the Clinical Trials Group has participated in many groundbreaking trails that have helped to change treatment methods or improve quality of life for cancer patients.

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