Qigong for Cancer

Qigong is a 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 cancer itself when combined with conventional therapy by reducing inflammation or increasing apoptosis (programmed cell death) in cancer cells.

Learn about the potential benefits seen in early trials, possible cautions, and how you can get started.

Woman doing qigong on the beach
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Types of Qigong

Qigong is a Chinese practice that combines meditation, controlled breathing, and movement to balance the flow of energy (qi), or life force within the body.

It is believed that if one's life force is balanced, then healing can occur.

There are two forms of qigong:

  • 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 practitioner uses their 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 itself, with a possible exception, several studies have found this practice to have a positive impact on well-being and quality of life for people living with cancer.

Some of the benefits that have been noted in clinical trials.

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—cognitive dysfunction, such as loss of concentration or memory challenges, experienced during chemotherapy—is a very impactful symptom for many people receiving this treatment.

It has 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 Conditions

Qigong may also help other health issues that some 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 results seen in cell samples and animals 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 or that inhibits their spread.

A 2018 study published in Cellular Physiology and Biochemistry found that external qigong (specifically, external qi of Yan Xin Qigong) 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 inflammatory markers in cancer patients who practice qigong.

Immune Function

A 2014 study found that cancer patients who did qigong exercises in combination with getting 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.

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

Side Effects

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 their thoughts on qigong, as well as whether there are any reasons why the therapy would not be good for your particular situation.

To get started with qigong, ask your oncologist about any classes they are aware of either at your cancer center, as well as any external qigong practitioners they can refer you to. Some community centers and health clubs also offer qigong.

Oftentimes, one of the best ways to learn about therapies that may complement your cancer treatment is through support groups and online cancer support communities.

In terms of pursuing qigong, others may not only be able to refer you to a class or practitioner but tell you about their experience with the practice, including any benefits or drawbacks.

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