Could Astronaut Training Help Cancer Patients?

It should come as no surprise that spaceflight wreaks a little havoc on the human anatomy. After all, as Earthly mammals, we are designed to best survive in the conditions provided by our planet.  But human curiosity and scientific progress continue to push out to the heavens and, as such, scientists and researchers have consistently developed new ways for astronauts to deal with the physiological effects of living in orbit. 

These physiological effects can include—but are definitely not limited to—decreased bone density and muscle mass, as well as a weakened immune system. And, of course, there is the risk for cosmic radiation.  Living in space for six months, then, can subject an astronaut to any number of these conditions—and likely a combination of them—since floating takes very little physical effort and the heart does not have to work as hard. 

But cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy are also at risk for very similar side effects. And so doctors are now saying that astronaut training might hold the key for better treatment preparation for cancer patients who are facing chemotherapy. 

According Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center’s Exercise Oncology Service exercise physiology researcher Jessica Scott, PhD Bsc, “We knew anecdotally that the side effects of spaceflight and cancer therapy were similar, but it was surprising how widespread the parallels were.”

The lead author of a new study about the similarities goes on to say that we have long known that astronauts experience something called “space fog,” which is actually somewhat similar to the “chemo brain” that cancer patients experience.  In addition, both astronauts and cancer patients appear to lower bone and muscle density and a smaller heart size. 

But while astronauts and cancer patients appear to share this phenomenon, they are advised in very different ways.  Astronauts, of course, are advised to get more exercise and to monitor their levels of cardiorespiratory fitness in preparation for space flight.  Cancer patients, on the other hand cancer patients are typically advised to get as much rest as possible before receiving their chemotherapy.  

All of this distills down to simple adjustments in doctor advisory of cancer patients.  Even just walking on a treadmill for a handful of minutes every day could prove beneficial to cancer patients.  Of course, monitoring overall health in a way similar to astronauts might also help mitigate the side effects of treatment.  Still, there is more to learn about this relationship and how the data can help on both occasions.