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Qigong can improve life for cancer patients
By Dr. Patrick Massey | Columnist
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Published: 11/16/2009 12:08 AM

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Can an ancient Chinese breathing exercise program benefit patients with cancer? A recent study, published in the medical journal Annals of Oncology, states that qigong (pronounced chi - gong) can improve the patient's quality of life and energy and may reduce inflammation.

Over the past several decades, there have been many advances in the treatment of cancer, but the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation therapy - fatigue, depression, chronic pain, bowel problems, etc. - are still significant. Medications can be beneficial, nevertheless, many patients would like to have a more holistic approach. According to some studies, more than 80 percent of cancer patients report using nontraditional therapies during and after their cancer treatment.

Qigong, in its most basic form, is a therapeutic form of exercise, synchronizing breathing with physical movement. However, a person can also do qigong breathing without physical movement. Qigong is actually two words, qi - "life energy" and gong - "to develop." Therefore, according to Oriental thought, the practice of qigong will enhance a person's life energy and ultimately health.

The origins of qigong are unknown. Some of the earliest writings in China, dating back over 5,000 years, described specific qigong exercises used to improve health. Today, qigong is a common exercise approach practiced by millions of people worldwide as a way of improving and maintaining their health.

Current medical research has demonstrated that the practice of qigong can decrease heart rate as well as blood pressure. In addition, it can lower cholesterol levels as well as reduce stress and improve immune function. There is also some published research to suggest an increased survival rate in cancer patients who regularly practice qigong.

In the Annals of Oncology study, 162 participants were randomized to either a qigong or control group. Quality of life, fatigue, mood and systemic inflammation were measured before and after 10 weeks in both the qigong and control groups. Those in the qigong group participated in two 90-minute qigong sessions per week for 10 weeks.

At the beginning of the study, there were no differences between the qigong and control groups. However, at the end of the 10-week program, the qigong group demonstrated significant improvements in quality of life, fatigue and mood. Interestingly, systemic inflammation dramatically improved in the qigong group also.

There is an increasing amount of medical research suggesting that qigong practice can result in significant health benefits. In Western medicine, these health benefits are believed to be related to an improvement in cardiovascular functioning, decrease in stress-related hormones and enhanced immune function. In Oriental medicine however, the practice of qigong enhances the flow of energy throughout the body. If the body has good energy flow, it is healthy.

Qigong practice is generally safe for all age groups and medical conditions. However, check with your physician before starting any therapy program. Qigong may be offered at local medical centers and cancer support centers like Wellness Place in Palatine as well as at park districts, health spas and other locations.

• Patrick B. Massey, M.D., Ph.D is medical director for complementary and alternative medicine for the Alexian Brothers Hospital Network.