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Qigong for Cancer

Benefits and How to Get Started

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Updated May 20, 2013

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Recent studies suggest that qigong may have benefits for people living with cancer. What is this practice, what are the benefits, and what do I need to know to get started?

What is Qigong?

Pronounced "chee kung," qigong is a Chinese meditative practice that combines meditation, controlled breathing, and movement to balance the flow of energy (qi), or life force within the body. It is felt that if our life force is balanced, then healing can occur.

There are two forms of qigong: internal and external. Internal qigong refers to the practice of meditation, breathing techniques, and slow and gentle movement to balance energy in the body. In external qigong, a qigong master uses his or her own energy to balance the flow of life force in the body.

Tai chi is another form of qigong that involves the use of gentle martial arts to balance energy.

What are the Benefits for People With Cancer?

While most studies to date fail to show that qigong has a direct effect on cancer (a possible exception is noted below), several studies have found this practice to have a positive impact on the well-being and quality of life for people living with cancer. Some of these benefits include:
  • Mood – Several studies have found qigong to have a positive effect on mood and stress levels among people with cancer.

  • Fatigue – Qigong appears to lessen the feeling of fatigue for people living with cancer and undergoing cancer treatments.

  • Pain Management – Qigong, especially external qigong, may help with the chronic pain experienced by some people with cancer.

  • Decreased Inflammation – Research that looks at blood tests for inflammation (such as C-reactive protein, or CRP) has shown a reduced level of these inflammatory markers in cancer patients who practice qigong.

  • Easing Side Effects of Treatment for Cancer – One study found that qigong was helpful in easing the psychological symptoms of people going through chemotherapy.

  • Improved Cognitive Function – In one study, people with cancer reported significantly improved mental functioning after beginning qigong.

  • Improvement in Immune Function – A recent study found that cancer patients who underwent qigong exercises (combined with conventional therapy) had a significant improvement in their immune function.

  • Help With Other Medical Conditions - Qigong may also benefit other medical conditions that cancer patients experience, such as chronic pain, high blood pressure, and even diabetes.

All About Qigong for Health

Does Qigong Have Any Effect on Cancer?

Thus far, there is little evidence to suggest that qigong has a direct effect on controlling cancer, but a few studies have shown positive benefits -– at least in lab animals and cell cultures.

Some studies done on small cell lung cancer cells, breast cancer cells, and prostate cancer cells have shown that external qigong may alter genes in a way that causes cancer cells to die (apoptosis) or inhibits their spread. One older study also found that qigong slowed the growth of lymphoma cells in mice. That said, the primary benefit of qigong appears to be in helping people with cancer cope with the fatigue and side effects of treatment.

Cautions

In general, qigong is a gentle practice that is tolerated well by people, including those who are living with cancer. Possible side effects may include muscle strains and disorientation due to the relaxing nature of qigong.

Getting Started

To get started with qigong, you may want to ask your oncologist if she has any suggestions about classes offered in your area. Some cancer centers now offer qigong classes for cancer patients.

If your oncologist believes qigong may be helpful for you, she may also have recommendations on books to read or online resources for beginning qigong on your own. Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center has a few videos you can do in the comfort of your home:

Sources:

Chan, C. et al. A systematic review of the effectiveness of qigong exercise in supportive cancer care. Supportive Care in Cancer. 2012. DOI: 10.1007/s00520-011-1378-3. Published Online 19 January 2012.

Chen, K. et al. A preliminary study of the effect of external qigong on lymphoma growth in mice. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. 2002. 8(5):615-21.

Jahnke, R. et al. Comprehensive Review of Health Benefits of Qigong and Tai Chi. American Journal of Health Promotion. 2010. 24(6):e1-e25.

Lee, T. et al. Effects of chan-chuang qigong on improving symptom and psychological distress in chemotherapy patients. American Journal of Chinese Medicine. 2006. 34(1):37-46.

Qigong for cancer treatment: a systematic review of controlled clinical trials. Acta Oncologica. 2007. 46(6):717-22.

Oh, B. et al. A Critical Review of the Effects of Medical Qigong on Quality of Life, Immune Function, and Survival in Cancer Patients. Integrative Cancer Therapies. 2011 Jun 28 (Epub ahead of print).

Oh, B. et al. Effect of medical Qigong on cognitive function, quality of life, and a biomarker of inflammation in cancer patients: a randomized controlled trial. Supportive Care in Cancer. 2011 Jun 19. (Epub ahead of print).

Oh, B. et al. Impact of Medical Qigong on quality of life, fatigue, mood and inflammation in cancer patients: a randomized controlled trial. Annals of Oncology. Advance Access Published Online October 30, 2009. doi:10.1093/annonc/mdp479.

Yan, X. et al. External Qi of Yan Xin Qigong induces G2/M arrest and apoptosis of androgen-independent prostate cancer cells by inhibiting Akt and NF-kappa B pathways. Molecular and Cellular Biochemistry. 2008. 310(1-2):227-34.

Yan, X. et al. External Qi of Yan Xin Qigong Induces apoptosis and inhibits migration and invasion of estrogen-independent breast cancer cells through suppression of AKt/NF-kB signaling. Cellular Physiology and Biochemistry. 2010. 25(2-3):263-70.

Yan, X. et al. External Qi of Yan Xin Qigong induces cell death and gene expression alterations promoting apoptosis and inhibiting proliferation, migration and glucose metabolism in small-cell lung cancer cells. Molecular and Cellular Biochemistry. 2011 Dec 10 (Epub ahead of print).

Yan, X. et al. External Qi of Yan Xin Qigong induces G2/M arrest and apoptosis of androgen-independent prostate cancer cells by inhibiting Akt and NF-kappa B pathways. Molecular and Cellular Biochemistry. 2008. 310(1-2):227-34.

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