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Last Updated: 04/05/13

Traditional Chinese Mind-Body Practice Studied in Long-Term Cancer Survivors

Division of Cancer Control and Population Sciences

Researchers are studying the traditional Chinese mind-body practice of qigong (pronounced CHEE-gong) among long-term cancer survivors in China to assess the potential benefits on their quality of life (QOL) and other health outcomes. These efforts seek to establish a strong, evidence-based foundation for the introduction and promotion of qigong to U.S. cancer survivors.

Weimo Zhu, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Community Health at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has practiced and taught qigong for many years. His interest in the use of qigong in cancer treatment was triggered when he was a graduate student in China in 1982 and was introduced to a woman with stage III stomach cancer. After surgery and chemotherapy, her doctors “thought she had only a few months to live,” Dr. Zhu recalled. As a last resort, she learned and began practicing Guo Lin Qi-Gong (GLQG), a special qigong regimen developed by a long-term uterine cancer survivor in the 1950s. He said, “She said after just three qigong practice sessions, she felt like she had more energy.”

Years later in 2005, “I organized a research conference supported by the National Institutes of Health on walking for health,” Dr. Zhu continued. “I found [the patient in China] not only alive, but she was very healthy and very active. So we brought her to the conference, and she did some demonstrations of qigong. Qigong got a very positive response among the participants.”

Dr. Zhu returned to China to learn more about GLQG, which features unique walking (touching heels and toes) and breathing (inhale, inhale and exhale) patterns. Qigong has three general principles: 1) regulate the posture 2) regulate the breathing with a purposive pattern; and 3) regulate the mind with meditation. During the 1970s and 1980s, GLQG became widely popular in China among cancer patients and was credited as an agent in cancer remission in many cases by the Chinese government, Dr. Zhu said. With funding from NCI*, Dr. Zhu conducted a small study among 40 long-term (10 or more years) cancer survivors who had practiced GLQG since shortly after their cancer diagnoses, and he compared them with a control group of 40 long-term survivors who had not practiced qigong.

One of preliminary results they found was that “oxygen intake from GLQG practice is really not that high in absolute terms,” Dr. Zhu said. “These are really just moderate kinds of physical activity,” he added. “Their energy expenditure is moderate intensity, around 3 METs (metabolic equivalent). But the interesting part is, using the unique breathing patterns of qigong, their relative oxygen intake is really high for that level of activity (slow walking at a pace of about 20 meters per minute).” This “slow walking, but moderate-intensity” feature should be very appropriate for cancer patients, considering they may be weak and quick to fatigue during or after conventional treatment. Preliminary data also indicate the GLQG cancer survivors had better health status, lower pain scores, lower recurrence rates, and were less depressed than the control group cancer survivors, Dr. Zhu reported. The GLQG intervention in China is different from using exercise to help offset side effects of cancer and its treatments, as exercise is often used in western societies, Dr. Zhu added. “In China, GLQG is used as a treatment of last resort after conventional medicine and Traditional Chinese Medicine have been tried unsuccessfully.”

NCI Program Director Catherine Alfano, Ph.D., commented, “Dr. Zhu’s study is part of an important and novel line of research that seeks to identify which kinds of physical activities are most effective for improving health outcomes in cancer survivors suffering from specific long-term effects of cancer treatment that limit their functional ability.”

*Grant Number: 5R03CA126407-02