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Multiple studies inform us that getting regular exercise reduces the risk of cancer. But getting exercise even after you are diagnosed with cancer, within reasonable limits, can improve quality of life and survival time.

My mother fought cancer for nearly 12 years, a full 11 years after she had been told she was in stage IV.

When my mother was first diagnosed, she didn't have grandchildren. She was determined to stay on this earth long enough to have grandchildren, and about seven years later, my brother and his wife made that possible - twice.

Having new and delightful members in the family is a strong reason to live, and my mother fought to the very end. One of her greatest frustrations at the end of her life was, however, she couldn't pick up her grandson. She just didn't have the strength. And she couldn't play with her granddaughter--although she had been as devoted a grandma as she could possibly be during the first few years of their lives.

Medical science has made real progress in treating cancer, especially in the United States, many Americans would be surprised to learn, but it's still an incredibly difficult disease.

Maintaining muscle mass can make a tremendous difference in quality of life that makes extending life worthwhile.

Why Muscle Is So Important

Anatomists and physiologists used to tell us that our skeletal muscle is the largest organ in the human body; in recent decades, more and more people carry more fat than muscle. These muscles that power our voluntary movements are still very large organs compared to the rest of our body, and extremely important for reasons we don't usually consider.

Skeletal muscle is powered by glucose. Using our muscles takes glucose out of the bloodstream. Skeletal muscle is also one of the body's sources of last resort for the amino acids it uses to make proteins. When it comes to protein, we actually aren't what we eat. We don't have little bits of bacon or tofu or spinach salad stuck together to make a mosaic in our human tissue.

The digestive tract breaks down the protein in food into individual amino acids. Our bodies can transform some of them, but there are nine amino acids that are "essential," that have to come from food. 

When the body uses amino acids, it has to use specific amino acids in a specific order to make proteins that become parts of cells that become parts of tissues that become parts of organs. If the body needs an enzyme or a hormone or another protein right now and the required amino acids are missing from food, it can break down healthy tissues to release the amino acids needed for an even more important enzyme or hormone.

What Cancer Does to Muscle

Even when cancer doesn't invade muscle itself (and it usually doesn't), at one point or another people with cancer get really sick. In the earlier stages of cancer, it's the inactivity that is the problem. 

You've probably seen many versions of the idea that cancer "feeds" on sugar. The principle could be stated more precisely, but it's certainly true that cancer cells prefer glucose, and lots of it, as their fuel. 

When the muscles aren't taking glucose out of the bloodstream, there's more for the cancer.
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