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Qigong Shows Promise in Improving Quality of Life

Mind-body practice may ease symptoms of depression in women who receive radiation therapy

March 18, 2013

Written By Nicole Katze, MA, Writer and Editorial Coordinator
Reviewed By Mitchell L. Gaynor, MD

Qigong may help ease symptoms of depression in women undergoing radiation treatment for breast cancer and also lessen fatigue in those who reported symptoms of depression before beginning treatment, a study shows. 

Qigong is an ancient Chinese mind-body exercise that involves mediation, slow and precise movements and controlled breathing, and is often considered a complementary or integrative therapy, meaning it is added to traditional medical treatment.

Study Background

Previous studies showed qigong may have a positive impact on people receiving chemotherapy for cancer. But no specific research was available on its effect on people who have radiation, or on the long-term impact of practicing qigong after finishing radiation therapy. 

The researchers on this study wanted to see if qigong has an impact on side effects related to stress and depression in people treated with radiation therapy. They also explored its effect on participants’ cortisol levels. Cortisol is a hormone made in the adrenal gland that signals when the body is under stress.

Study Design 

This study included 96 women with stages 0 to III disease who were treated at Fudan University Shanghai Cancer Center, in China. The women were 18 years old and older, had undergone surgery, and planned five to six weeks of radiation. None had practiced qigong regularly before the study.

The women answered surveys about quality of life and gave saliva samples at four times of day for cortisol level, to give the researchers a baseline. The women were randomly assigned to two arms, which were balanced by disease stages, type of surgery, time since diagnosis, chemotherapy, and participants’ ages.

  • Arm I had 49 women who attended five 40-minute qigong classes weekly during radiation treatment. Participants received a DVD and were encouraged to practice on off days and after they finished radiation
  • Arm II had 47 women who received standard radiation therapy alone

Both groups answered quality-of-life surveys and gave saliva samples at the midpoint and end of treatment, and one month and three months after treatment ended. The surveys considered symptoms of depression (depressive feelings or behaviors), fatigue, sleep disturbances and overall quality of life.

Results

Overall, participants in the qigong arm showed decreases in depression over time, while those in arm II showed no change. Practicing qigong did not lead to a significant difference between groups for fatigue, overall quality of life, sleep disturbance, or cortisol level. 

When the researchers grouped data by level of depression reported in baseline surveys – low versus high – they found further differences:

  • Women who reported low symptoms of depression before treatment saw no significant change in symptoms of depression, fatigue, overall quality of life, sleep disturbance or cortisol level
  • Women who reported high symptoms of depression before treatment saw:
    • Some positive change in symptoms of depression in the last week of radiation
    • Significant positive change in symptoms of depression, fatigue and overall quality of life one month after radiation

These findings support the need for further research of qigong and other integrative therapies for use in breast cancer treatment, as well as in more culturally diverse groups. 

What This Means For You

The researchers say this study shows qigong may lead to clinically significant increases in overall quality of life for women treated with radiation for breast cancer. When a finding is clinically significant, it has a practical use to either you or your doctors. 

If you have stress, anxiety or depression, practicing qigong regularly may help you lessen those feelings. Your treatment center may offer qigong classes; if not, an oncology social worker or patient navigator may be able to help you find community classes.

Chen, Zhen, Meng, Zhiqiang, et. al.: Qigong Improves Quality of Life in Women Undergoing Radiotherapy for Breast Cancer. Cancer (25 Jan 2013) Wiley Online Library.

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