Can Fitness Trackers Improve Health in Cancer Survivors?

Experts are exploring whether wearable fitness trackers can improve health during and after cancer treatment.

“We know that how well a cancer patient responds to a particular treatment greatly depends on how functional the patient is at home,” Nieva says. “But more than half of the time, there’s a significant discrepancy between a doctor’s perception of the patient’s state of well-being and the patient’s reality.”

Cancer specialists rely on a tool called the Eastern Cooperative Oncology Group (ECOG) Scale of Performance Status to measure how the disease affects daily life. Doctors rate patients on a scale of 0 (able to do normal activities) to 4 (completely disabled or bedridden).

A majority of the time, however, doctors mistakenly believe that patients are faring better than they really are. “During a 20-minute appointment, a doctor might assume that a patient — who showered, fixed his or her hair, dressed nicely — is doing really well, and rate them a 1 on the scale for minimal symptoms, mostly active,” Nieva says. “What we can’t see is that the patient may be more of a 3 rating at home, meaning that more than half of his or her time is spent in bed or on the couch.”

This discrepancy can greatly affect how well a patient responds to a doctor’s chosen treatment. For instance, a relatively mobile patient with a 1 or 2 rating on the ECOG scale is likely to tolerate and respond well to an aggressive treatment. Those with a 3 rating who undergo the same treatment may soon find themselves incapacitated (a 4 rating). “We don’t want to overtreat someone and shorten or worsen their quality of life,” says Nieva. “At the same time, we don’t want to undertreat someone who might enjoy a longer, fuller life after receiving a stronger treatment.”

Wearables can help shore up this perception/reality difference by giving health care teams a more accurate idea of exactly how mobile a patient is in real life. A wearer can log into her device’s website or app and bring printouts of her daily, weekly or monthly activity levels to her medical appointments. “This information can improve understanding between doctors and patients, and may lead to better treatment decisions and improved survival rates,” Nieva says.


One reason so many Americans sport wearables on their wrists these days is to monitor activity levels. The idea is that the more active you are and the more steps you take the more calories you’ll burn, helping to keep weight off. Because excess weight is a known contributor to cancer cell growth (perhaps due to increased inflammation and hormone production), researchers want to know if technology like wearables can help people keep weight off and lower their risk of cancer recurrence.

The Breast Cancer Weight Loss Study (BWEL) is a trial that will test whether taking part in a weight loss program reduces the risk of breast cancer recurrence in women who are overweight or obese when they develop breast cancer. Half of the study participants receive regular diet and exercise advice via phone from a health coach, while the other half receive educational materials, but no coaching.

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