What Is Qigong for Cancer Patients?

How qigong may help cancer symptoms and even survival

Woman doing qigong

Kathrin Ziegler / Getty Images

Qigong is an alternative/complementary therapy that is now available at several cancer centers. Studies have found that it may help people cope with some of the symptoms of cancer such as fatigue and chemobrain. Unlike many integrative therapies, there is some early evidence that qigong may have an effect on a cancer itself when combined with conventional therapy by reducing inflammation or increasing apoptosis (programmed cell death) in cancer cells. Learn about the potential benefits in early trials, possible cautions, and how you can get started.

Understanding 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.

Types of Qigong

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.

Possible 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 the benefits that have been noted in clinical trials include:

Improved Mood

Several studies have found qigong to have a positive effect on mood and stress levels among people with cancer. One study found that qigong was helpful in easing the psychological symptoms of people going through chemotherapy.

Fatigue

Qigong appears to lessen cancer 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.

Improved Cognitive Function

Chemobrain, or cognitive dysfunction such as loss of concentration and memory challenges during chemotherapy, is a very annoying symptom for many people. Recently, it's been found that aromatase inhibitors, medications for women who have estrogen receptor-positive breast cancer and are postmenopausal, can also cause chemobrain symptoms. In one study, people with cancer reported significantly improved mental functioning after beginning qigong.

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.

Possible Effects 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. It's important to note, however, that studies in the lab or in animal studies don't necessarily reflect what will happen in humans.

Increased Apoptosis

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. A 2018 study published in Cellular Physiology and Biochemistry found that external qigong (specifically, external qi of Yan Xin Qigong (YXQ-EQ)) both increased apoptosis and inhibited signaling pathways necessary for metastasis to occur in non-small cell lung cancer cells.

Reduced 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.

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.

Survival

According to a 2017 review, there is indirect scientific evidence that qigong may have an influence on cancer survival.

Despite these possible benefits, the primary benefit of qigong appears to be in helping people with cancer cope with the fatigue and side effects of treatment.

Cautions and Contraindications

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.

Certainly, not all people with cancer will be able to do qigong, and not all will benefit. Like all alternative therapies that are used to cope with the symptoms of cancer and conventional treatments, what works for one person may not work for another, and vice versa.

Getting Started

As with any form of therapy, it's important to talk to your oncologist about her thoughts on qigong, as well as whether you have any reasons why the therapy would not be good for your particular situation.

To get started with qigong, you can your oncologist about any classes (or providers in the case of external qigong) that are offered at your cancer center. She may also be aware of classes in the community. You can also check into your local community center or health club to look for classes.

Often times, one of the best ways to learn about alternative therapies that may complement your cancer treatment is through support groups and cancer support communities. Not only could this be an opportunity to learn about where the classes may be held, but you can hear about other's experiences and what they thought were the possible benefits or drawbacks. In addition, if you are able to "meet" people in your support community who are very familiar with the practice of qigong or tai chi, that person may be able to recommend a provider or classes that excel relative to those that are mediocre.

A Word From Verywell

Qigong is an ancient meditative practice that's being increasingly offered in cancer centers as well as the community. Fortunately, there are now many alternative and complementary therapies that are helping with the annoying symptoms of treatment and focus not only on treating cancer, but maintaining the best quality of life possible during that time.

Was this page helpful?

Article Sources

Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial policy to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.