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Last Updated: 04/08/13

Traditional Chinese Mind-Body Practice May Relieve Cancer Stress and Improve Quality of Life

Division of Cancer Prevention

Researchers at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center are studying the traditional Chinese mind-body practice of qigong (pronounced CHEE-gong) among rectal cancer patients receiving radiation treatments. The researchers are examining qigong as a way to address the considerable distress, impaired quality of life (QOL), and reduced physical function rectal cancer patients experience.

Qigong is an ancient practice in which individuals learn to channel their qi (internal energy flow) to benefit their physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual health. It incorporates stress-reduction techniques including regulated breathing, visual imagery, meditation, and various gentle movements, explained Lorenzo Cohen, Ph.D., director of the Integrative Medicine Program at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas.

The qigong technique will be combined with the Chinese slow movement meditation practice of Tai Chi Chuan (TCC). The reason for this addition is the mixed results of a previous study. “Some NCI-funded research that we conducted in China in women with breast cancer used a very similar qigong program,” noted Dr. Cohen. “Our initial analysis found the intervention useful for helping to decrease levels of depression.” However, “it really had no other beneficial effects for relieving any of the physical side effects of treatment.”

“We proposed to NCI* that we add on a TCC component to the qigong program for the rectal cancer study to increase the physical aspects of the intervention,” in hopes of getting beneficial results on the physical side effects of the treatment, he added.

The patients will be taught a shortened form of TCC which consists of eight “very simple movements that are all linked together in flowing fashion,” Dr. Cohen said. He will compare the qigong/TCC group to a second study arm of patients who will be doing “what we call light exercise.” The addition of the exercise group is important, he explained, because “at the end of the study, we should be able to know if is there something about just physical activity and the extra attention you get by participating in one of these interventions, or whether there is actually something a bit more unique about the qigong program that’s useful for improving QOL.”

There will also be a third group of patients, acting as a control, who receive no intervention. Each of the three study arms will enroll 50 rectal cancer patients. Participants in the qigong and exercise groups will attend practice sessions three days a week throughout their six-week radiotherapy schedule. QOL measures will be assessed among all patients at the beginning of the study and again at one and three months after radiation treatment ends.

If the study is positive, showing unique effects of qigong/TCC, the researchers will conduct future studies to determine “what it is about qigong that improves these outcomes relative to exercise alone,” Dr. Cohen said. There may be other, simpler techniques more familiar to Western society that could produce similar results. “However, if we find that the qigong is better than a generic light exercise and relaxation program, it starts to open up a better understanding of these concepts from ancient Chinese medicine,” he added.

NCI Program Director Ann O’Mara, Ph.D., commented, “Focusing this intervention on rectal cancer patients is laudatory, since rectal cancer is very understudied, in part, because of its rarity. This is the only project in our portfolio examining ways to mitigate the morbidities associated with rectal cancer and associated treatment.”

*Grant Number: 5R21CA129201-02