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Last Updated: 03/25/13

Tai Chi Exercise Studied to Improve Quality of Life for Senior Cancer Survivors

NCI CAM Annual Report-FY10

There are over 28 million cancer survivors worldwide and the majority of these survivors are over age 60. Compared to elderly individuals who have never had cancer, both short-term and long-term elderly cancer survivors are more likely to report worse quality of life (QOL), high rates of psychological distress, poorer general health status, and more functional limitations. Mind-body exercise interventions have been suggested as a way to improve both mental and physical aspects of QOL in cancer patients who are undergoing or who have completed treatment. However, few studies have been conducted among older cancer survivors.

Anita Kinney, Ph.D., Jon & Karen Huntsman Presidential Professor in Cancer Research at Huntsman Cancer Institute and the Department of Internal Medicine, University of Utah, explained that Tai Chi Chih (TCC), a westernized version of Tai Chi Chuan, is a mind-body program designed for use in the elderly and medically compromised populations. TCC is considered to be a moderate-intensity aerobic exercise that consists of a combination of slow, deliberate movements and meditation.

With NCI funding*, Dr. Kinney is conducting a randomized controlled clinical trial to determine the feasibility and preliminary efficacy of TCC for improving physical performance, mental and physical health-related QOL, and biomarkers associated with stress, inflammation, and healthy aging among senior, female cancer survivors. “We have enrolled 64 women, ages 55 and older,” she noted. “About 84% of our enrollees are breast cancer survivors. Initially, the study was focusing solely on breast cancer survivors but there was a large community interest for enrolling women who had other types of cancer. We felt that it was important to be responsive to the community’s interest and address the needs of other female sedentary cancer survivors.”

The women are randomized to the TCC or a health education control (HEC) group. They all receive 12 weeks of TCC or HEC, for 60 minutes, 3 times a week, for a total of 36 sessions. “We evaluate them for physical performance,” Dr. Kinney noted. “They come into our Cancer Institute’s Wellness Center and receive exams by physical fitness professionals. Then we collect their survey data to assess their QOL. We also collect blood samples to test for some biomarkers. We’re measuring the TCC intervention’s effects on inflammatory cytokines, as well as on cortisol which is a stress biomarker and also oxytocin which has been coined the ‘happy’ hormone.”

The trial is ongoing, but Dr. Kinney is hopeful the study’s data will provide support for the feasibility and the potential health benefits of a TCC program for senior, female cancer survivors. If so, she plans to seek NCI funding for a larger, multi-site randomized clinical trial. “We hope that if our findings are borne out in a larger trial, this may pave the way for mind-body exercise interventions to become a routine part of cancer wellness care,” Dr. Kinney explained. “We hope the studies will provide evidence to policy-makers for the inclusion of TCC and similar types of interventions into survivorship care plans and for third-party payers reimbursing cancer survivors for TCC.”

*Grant number: 5R21CA135250-02