A study of cancer survivors from Iowa and Nebraska finds exercise may have an important impact on how patients respond to treatment and how quickly they recover.

Scientists at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha looked at how exercise boosts the immune system of cancer survivors. UNMC’s Dr. Laura Bilek says the results are preliminary.

“It appears that exercise may help combat some of the negative side effects from chemotherapy and radiation,” Dr. Bilek says. “We hope that this may help cancer survivors enhance their ability to ultimately fight cancer.”

Therapies like radiation and chemo can leave a person feeling wiped out.

“When the immune system recovers, we’re left with a lot of cells that are old and not terribly functional,” Bilek says. “Those hang around for a long time. We know in other areas of research that exercise can help to get rid of those slowly and make room for cells that are more helpful.”

The study finds those new cells, sparked by exercise, may be able to help the body to fight infections and possibly kill surviving tumor cells. The older we get, Bilek says the more of those older, unhealthy cells we’re carrying around.

“That’s why older individuals are more prone to infection,” she says. “We also know that in the aging population, persons that are more active have a lower number of these non-functional cells and we also know older individuals who exercise tend to get less infection.”

This is an early study and Bilek says more research is needed.