Several Factors Drive Success of Peer Exercise Program for Breast Cancer Survivors

By Teresa Hagan Thomas, PhD, RN - Last Updated: March 30, 2023

Survivorship care supports individuals with cancer past their diagnosis and treatment. Given the long-term sequelae and need for ongoing surveillance, many cancer centers now have survivorship programs to support their patients throughout the cancer care continuum. One of the key foci of these programs is providing lifestyle support to help individuals regain their health and well-being and to reduce future complications. Exercise programs, especially peer support that matches survivors, provide aerobic fitness; improve cancer-related fatigue, sleep problems, and mood issues; and reduce the risk for cancer-related and overall mortality.

While research supports the benefits of exercise during cancer survivorship, the most patient-centered approaches are unclear. A group of interdisciplinary researchers led by Catherine Sabiston, PhD, from the University of Toronto, recently published their findings in the Oncology Nursing Forum assessing the exercise preferences among a group of female cancer survivors. Their findings highlight the need for matching peers based on their personal and cancer characteristics, physical activity preferences, and how to find a peer.

The researchers recruited a diverse sample of female cancer survivors to participate in focus groups in Toronto, Canada. The 16 participants were, on average, 30 months post-diagnosis (range, 14-61) and 54 years old (range, 27-87). Most had either a history of breast or gynecologic cancer, or other cancers including colorectal and pancreatic.

Participants’ major preferences for peer-facilitated survivorship physical activity are summarized below.

Personality Characteristics

Women generally preferred to be matched with another woman about the same age as them, in the same geographic area, and with a similar personality and employment status. Having someone generally in the same life stage helps provide similar experiences. A peer located nearby ensures that the physical activity routine could be easily added to survivors’ busy schedules, especially regarding work.

Physical Activity

Women wanted to be paired with someone with similar interests and motivations for physical activity. This pairing would help women get what they wanted from physical activity, whether competition, personal achievement, or performance goals. Women also wanted someone with a similar fitness level (current or before cancer) so that they could support each other with similar intensity levels. Other women wanted someone more fit to “push” them to do more.

Cancer Characteristics

Women reported mixed preferences for a peer’s cancer history. Most women said that the intensity rather than the type of cancer mattered most. Yet women under the age of 40 generally wanted to be matched with someone with the same type of cancer. In addition, having someone at a similar stage (after diagnosis, receiving treatment, or survivorship) was another priority, so peers were in similar experiences.

Regarding the process, women were generally interested in an online format to identify a peer. Having people’s histories written up helped ensure some peer-matching priorities, with many participants likening it to online dating for physical activity. Some also wanted check-ins or meetings at the cancer center and others simply wanted to find a peer and start the physical activity program with them.

This study provides valuable information to nurses, navigators, and other survivorship program leaders interested in creating sustainable survivorship exercise programs. Peer-matching can be complex, and understanding patient-centered approaches to designing these programs can ensure high uptake and success. For women in this study, matching based on personality characteristics, physical activity experience, and motivations were most critical.


Exploring peer support characteristics for promoting physical activity among women living beyond a cancer diagnosis: a qualitative descriptive study