“Physical activity is an essential element of care for people with cancer”

Physiotherapist Sarah Dewhurst discusses The Royal Marsden’s new physical activity strategy, which is breaking down historical misconceptions of exercise for cancer patients and embedding it into routine cancer care.

The Royal Marsden has launched its five-year physical activity strategy, making it one of the first Trusts in the country to do so. The goals of the new strategy are to educate patients, staff and volunteers on the physical and mental benefits of exercise, and provide resources and opportunities to incorporate it into their lifestyle.  

“During my 10 years here, I’ve developed an interest in how physical activity can support people with cancer.” says Sarah Dewhurst – Physiotherapist and Living With and Beyond Cancer Service Lead at The Royal Marsden.

A Royal Marsden Physiotherapist smiling, wearing a sports jumper and sitting in front of gym equipment including a yoga ball and exercise bike.
Physiotherapist at The Royal Marsden, Sarah Dewhurst

“Historically, clinicians encouraged patients not to exert themselves. However, we now know that regular physical activity during cancer treatment is safe and can help reduce symptoms and side effects, such as muscle wastage and fatigue. There are psychological benefits, too, such as a lowered risk of depression and improved general wellbeing.” 

For people with some cancers, including breast, colorectal and prostate cancers, exercise can help reduce the risk of recurrence and increase survival. Being active during and after treatment also reduces the risk of getting other long-term conditions such as diabetes and heart disease.  

Breaking barriers to exercise at The Royal Marsden 

“Unfortunately for cancer patients, there are barriers to exercise, from lack of time to side effects from treatment,” says Sarah. "And we know that our patients don’t always receive the information and support they need. The Royal Marsden’s new physical activity strategy aims to help overcome these and embed physical exercise into routine cancer care.” 

One of the projects funded by The Royal Marsden Cancer Charity as part of the new physical activity strategy is encouraging movement with two ‘Living Street Maps’.

A drawn map of The Royal Marsden Sutton site, there are blue and green routes mapped out where people can walk across nearby Belmont park or Banstead Downs.
A section of one of Sutton's Living Street Maps, funded by The Royal Marsden Cancer Charity.

These are specially-designed maps with walking routes around the hospitals. These maps each have three walking routes designed as a starting point to explore the surrounding area and to discover the many points of interest close to both the Chelsea and Sutton hospitals. 

The maps also incorporate differing lengths, so individuals can choose a suitable route dependent on their ability, to help both staff and patients find opportunities to move between appointments or while on lunch breaks. 

Explore more of The Royal Marsden sites

The new strategy ensures that that physical activity is treated as an essential and necessary element of cancer care at The Royal Marsden and will also provide a foundation for services such as prehabilitation to build on. The prehabilitation service, which is also supported by The Royal Marsden Cancer Charity, uses physiotherapy to provide structured exercise support, alongside nutrition and emotional wellbeing support to improve fitness ahead of cancer treatment. 

Developed in collaboration with patients at The Royal Marsden

The strategy was developed by teams across the trust alongside patient representatives. Fran is a secondary breast cancer patient at The Royal Marsden, a fitness instructor and Cancer Exercise Specialist. She spoke at the launch event for the new strategy about her own experiences of cancer and importance of physical activity. 

Fran in gym gear lifting up a heavy weight over her head
Fitness instructor and Cancer Exercise Specialist, Fran

“It was only through my own coaching background that I was able to use myself as an experiment during my treatment and design workouts to do during chemotherapy treatment" says Fran. "Now I'm more passionate about helping others see the benefit of exercise than anything I've ever been passionate about before.” 

"The research is so exciting and proves physical activity should be prescribed as a treatment plan alongside our medical treatment. The Royal Marsden has started that movement, and I'm very excited to be involved.” 

“Exercise is my drug of choice” 

Bowel cancer patient Matthew shares the difference that physical activity has made to him, and his journey through cancer treatment and care at The Royal Marsden: “I have always been pretty active and at 58 was thinking about my next big challenge, something to celebrate my 60th year. In 2012 I cycled from Land’s End to John O’Groats to mark my 50th birthday! However, the regular chemo and radiotherapy sessions did get in the way of my routine.” 

A man walking through a park, smiling with his arms out wide and giving two big thumbs up. He's wearing a bright blue hoody that reads '5k your way'

“I was still determined to do what I could, so would regularly walk 45 minutes to and from Sutton to get my chemo. The key thing is that there is now overwhelming evidence to show that moving when living with or beyond cancer is better than sitting.” 

“Having spoken to contacts at The Royal Marsden and been put in touch with other patients, family members and the MOVE against cancer programme, we set about forming the ‘Nonsuch Park 5k Your Way’ group. A few years on, and we regularly get over 15 people turning up on the last Saturday of the month, many of us walk, some jog, run or just volunteer.” 

“The chat and the coffee afterwards is important because the project is not just about physical activity; it is about promoting overall well-being and offering a supportive network for those affected by cancer. As a patient, having seen the effort being put in by all the various staff I meet on the calls regarding all the different parts of the new physical activity strategy, I know it’s being done ‘The Royal Marsden Way’ and that’s brilliant!” 

Feeling inspired? 

Make sure to get active and keep moving, as it's so beneficial. Why not combine this with one of our fundraising events? Whatever your activity level, find the perfect fundraising event to suit you and get the satisfaction of knowing you’ve helped raise funds for a brilliant cause. Discover our fundraising events. 

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