Working It Out: Does Exercise Boost the Effectiveness of Melanoma Treatment?

Physician-scientist Allison Betof Warner working in the lab.

One area of Allison Betof Warner's current research is looking at mice running on a treadmill to see how it affects the immune system.

Exercise is not just an important part of life for Memorial Sloan Kettering physician-scientist Allison Betof Warner — it’s an important part of her research.

Dr. Betof Warner, a medical oncologist who specializes in treating people with melanoma, is also a member of MSK physician-scientist Jedd Wolchok’s lab. There, she studies the effects of exercise on melanoma and other cancers using mouse models. She hopes to eventually apply her findings to her patients.

In an interview, she talked about her work.

How did you get interested in studying the connection between exercise and cancer outcomes?

I’m a lifelong athlete. I was a competitive gymnast for many years, including as a Division 1 student-athlete in college. When I got to medical school [at Duke University School of Medicine], I became a marathon runner and CrossFit athlete. I competed in the CrossFit Games (the world championships of the sport) and have coached CrossFit since 2010.

Physician-scientist Allison Betof Warner lifts a barbell at a CrossFit competition.

Allison Betof Warner competing at the Southeast Regional CrossFit Championships in Jacksonville, Florida, in 2010.

I was also working on a PhD in cancer biology. I started out studying the structure of tumor blood vessels. Then I heard a talk from Lee Jones about exercise and cancer. [Dr. Jones, who was then at Duke, now leads MSK’s Exercise Oncology Service, which is studying how exercise affects cancer outcomes through both lab research and clinical trials.]

Lee was using mice to study whether exercise could help improve outcomes in breast cancer. He co-mentored me during my PhD, and we published a study that showed exercise improves the quality of the blood vessels going to a tumor, which, in turn, makes chemotherapy more effective.

How has the view of exercise and cancer changed?

When I started my PhD research about fifteen years ago, some people were concerned that if you improved the structure of the blood vessels in a tumor, it might help the tumor grow faster or make it easier to spread. Our research in mice showed that this is not a concern. We still haven’t shown that patients experience all the benefits we’ve seen in mice, but collectively the data suggest that exercise is not harmful — either in melanoma or any other kind of cancer.

Research has demonstrated that exercise has many benefits for people with cancer, including reducing cancer-related fatigue. It also provides psychological benefits by improving overall mood and sense of well-being.

What are you studying now?

My current research has been looking at mice running on a treadmill to see how it affects the immune system — both the immune cells coming into the tumor and those circulating in the body. We’re still learning, but early work has suggested that exercise slows the growth of melanoma tumors in mice and that it does so by acting on the immune system.

I first became interested in this topic when I was a medical resident, and immunotherapy was becoming an important form of cancer treatment. We’ve known for some time that exercise has effects on the immune system, so it raised interesting questions about the role exercise plays in the effectiveness of immunotherapy. After I came here as a fellow, I joined Jedd’s lab, where they were doing research on how to make immunotherapies more effective.

Exercise Oncology
Learn about MSK's Exercise Oncology Service, which brings together scientists and physiologists to study the effect of physical activity on cancer treatment and prognosis.

Does your research influence what you tell your patients?

Currently, we don’t have enough data to recommend one particular type of exercise over another. Several organizations, including the American College of Sports Medicine, have put out recommendations for people with cancer that recommend 150 minutes a week of moderate exercise or 75 minutes a week of more vigorous exercise. I share those guidelines with my patients.

If patients were exercising before their cancer diagnosis, I tell them to maintain what they were doing. For people who were completely sedentary, there is no magic number or exercise prescription for me to give them that’s data driven right now. But we know that getting up, moving around, and being active is good for people with cancer, and I tell them that.

What do you do to stay fit these days?

I exercise six days a week. It not only keeps me healthy, but it keeps me sane.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, I was teaching CrossFit. I got a Peloton bike right before all the gyms closed, and I’ve become an avid user. My husband and I just bought a house in the suburbs, and I’m putting in a CrossFit gym in our garage. He’s very tolerant!

What are your plans for your research?

In addition to continuing my research in the lab, I’m working with Bill Tap [Chief of the Sarcoma Medical Oncology Service] and Julia Glade Bender [Vice Chair for Clinical Research in the Department of Pediatrics], who are leading the new Adolescent and Young Adult program at MSK. [This program aims to meet both the medical and psychosocial needs of people with cancer who are in their teens, 20s, and 30s.] I’m leading the development of an exercise component. It will focus on research as well as clinical care for patients in the program.

Because of the pandemic, the program will be remote at first, but our goal is to eventually hold in-person classes. One thing that’s important to emphasize about exercise is that it helps to create communities. For adolescent and young adult patients, we expect this program will become part of their support system.