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Tai Chi and Cancer Treatment

Public Health Report : Tai Chi and Cancer Treatment
Author : Eric L. Zielinski


Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) has gained much ground in the scientific arena the past few decades by proving the effects of various natural, holistic therapies through random control trials and other research designs. This is particularly true in regards to cancer research and mind/body activities like Tai Chi. In the review below, we discuss the various benefits cancer patients have experienced when they practice Tai Chi

Cancer Treatment

Most cancer patients are treated with surgery, radiation, chemo, and biologic therapies. Hormone therapies and transplant options are also utilized, but not as commonly. According to the American Cancer Society, “Surgery offers the greatest chance of cure for many types of cancer… [and] other treatments, such as radiation therapy and chemotherapy, may be used along with surgery.” In fact, “More than half of all people with cancer have radiation treatment at some point.”

The inherent weakness with medical cancer treatments, however, is that once the cancerous cells are removed, there is no guarantee that they will not return; this is particularly true with chemo and radiation therapy. In fact, the American Cancer Society (ACS) states that, “No matter what type of cancer is treated, treatments such as radiation and chemotherapy can lead to a second cancer in the long run.”

For example, the ACS reports, “Men who are treated with radiation therapy have a higher risk of bladder cancer later on than men who had surgery to remove their prostates. They may also have a higher risk for colon and rectal cancer.” Similarly, “Secondary breast cancer is most strongly associated with high-dose radiation therapy to the chest for women treated between 10 and 30 years of age, such as for Hodgkin lymphoma.”

Research showing Tai Chi’s ability to help treat cancer.

According to University of Rochester Medical Center researchers, “Cancer-related stress affects all patients with cancer and negatively impacts cancer outcomes in terms of response to treatment, quality of life, disease progression, and survival in different phases of their experience.” In response to cancer patients’ desires to take a natural approach and delay or avoid the use of harmful chemo or radiation therapy, “The prevalence of [complementary and alternative medicine] use in patients with history of cancer is growing.” Delightfully, research studies with cancer patients utilizing complementary or mind-body interventions indicate that practices like Tai Chi are being utilized globally to reduce psychological distress, improve coping skills and also enhance immune function through what is known as neuroendocrine-immune system modulation. There is even hope that, by enhancing immune function, CAM will prove to be a viable first-step approach to cancer treatment in the future.

• Type 1 immune reactions utilize both cell-mediated and humoral responses that act together in unison; whereas type 2 immune reactions generate humoral responses only and actively suppress cell-mediated responses. A proper balance of these two responses to cancer cells is believed to provide sufficient human immunity against tumors. Subsequently, to discover how Tai Chi affects this balance, Shanghai University of Sport researchers took 32 postsurgical non-small cell lung cancer patients and had them participate in a 16-week Tai Chi program. Recently published in the journal Cancer Nursing, the results are very promising. The researchers found that the 16-week Tai Chi program “significantly diminished the magnitude of the decreased T1/T2 ratio in comparison to the control group” and was even shown to decrease the stress hormone cortisol in comparison to the control group; indicating that cellular stress levels were deceased and in much better balance due to practicing Tai Chi. The implications for cancer patient is paramount as, “Tai Chi may have a role in ameliorating the imbalance between humoral and cellular immunity, potentiating human immunity against tumors.”

• In 2012, researchers from the University of Rochester Medical Center published a study in the journal Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine with the expressed purpose of reviewing “the aspects of cancer-related stress and interventions of commonly used complementary and alternative techniques/products for amelioration of cancer-related stress.” In regards to Tai Chi they found that research supports improved “functional capacity, aerobic capacity, muscular strength and flexibility, self-esteem, bone health, immune function, and [quality of life]” for cancer patients who undergo various Tai Chi programs. Thus, the authors were able to confidently conclude that Tai Chi “seems to be an intervention capable of reducing anxiety and distress associated with the cancer experience.”

• Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine published a study this past year that evaluated the result of practicing Tai Chi and attending spiritual growth groups had on 109 early breast cancer patients who were undergoing chemotherapy. As reported in the study, “Grounded in a psychoneuroimmunology framework, the overarching hypothesis was that both interventions would reduce perceived stress, enhance [quality of life] and psychosocial functioning, normalize levels of stress-related neuroendocrine mediators, and attenuate immunosuppression.” The results of the trial as presented by the authors, however, did not appear to support these claims. “While interesting patterns were seen across the sample and over time,” the authors stated, “The interventions had no appreciable effects when delivered during the period of chemotherapy.” However, this conclusion is misleading as their own data supported the fact that practicing Tai Chi greatly benefited the participants. In the results section of the paper, for example, the authors specifically indicated that, “Levels of stress were highest at baseline, decreased over the period of chemotherapy, and then plateaued over the recovery period. Similarly, [quality of life] scores decreased during chemotherapy but increased by the first follow-up time point.” In other words, while participants practiced Tai Chi, they received a significant benefit and the damage done by the chemo was not experienced to the degree as it is with people who are not practicing Tai Chi. Furthermore, when they stopped Tai Chi their symptoms of decreased quality of life and increased stress resumed. What is especially impressive is that “immediately following post-intervention, [Tai Chi] participants demonstrated an increase in depressive symptoms as compared to the standard care and SPRT groups.” In other words, the Tai Chi group received such impressive relief in comparison to the spiritual growth and control groups that when the benefits subsided after discontinuing the program, their new mental status profile dropped more because it reached a higher peak than the other groups while practicing Tai Chi and, thus, had farther to decline back to a “normal” non-Tai Chi state. Thus, an “increase in depressive symptoms” occurred in the Tai Chi study group.

It is important to note that in this study, it could be suspected that the research design was flawed in that it did not take into account the multiplied stressors the bodies of these cancer patients were experiencing; namely, the cancer itself and the damage done by the chemo. The research design required participants to meet for 90 minutes each week for a total of 10 weeks, and only required a minimum of eight sessions to remain in the study. Under such stress, it would be advisable for participants to have practiced Tai Chi at least three times a week for up to 12 weeks as other studies have proven to be effected for serious, chronic diseases processes. Similar studies have proven long-lasting benefits from Tai Chi even up to six months after discontinuing their program.

• In 2006 the British Journal of Sports Medicine published a study in which researchers from Taiwan investigated the effects of a 12-week program of regular Tai Chi on functional mobility, beliefs about benefits of exercise on physical and psychological health and immune regulation in middle aged volunteers. Recruiting 14 men and 23 women who were considered of normal health, it was shown that “regular [Tai Chi] exercise had a highly significant positive effect on functional mobility, and beliefs about the health benefits of exercise, in the 37 participants. Total white blood cell and red blood cell count did not change significantly, but a highly significant decrease in monocyte count occurred. A significant increase in the ratio of T helper to suppressor cells was found, along with a significant increase in CD4CD25 regulatory T cells. Production of the regulatory T cell mediators transforming growth factor ß and interleukin 10 under specific antigen stimulation (varicella zoster virus) was also significantly increased after this exercise program.” The researchers were thus able to confidently conclude that, “A 12 week program of regular TCC exercise enhances functional mobility, personal health expectations, and regulatory T cell function.” Further research needs to be completed on how this immune response improvement directly affects cancer patients, however, it is suspected that it would show significant benefits.

• As it has been well established that breast cancer treatments accelerate bone loss and leads to osteoporosis, University of Rochester Medical Center researchers set out to determine the effect Tai Chi has in managing or reversing this process. The fascinating 2010 pilot study published in Clinical Breast Cancer, compared Tai Chi with standard support therapy on bone loss biomarkers among breast cancer survivors and determined that the Tai Chi group “experienced a greater increase in levels of bone formation…a significant decrease in bone resorption…whereas the women in the support therapy group did not.” Like other studies evaluating its effect on breast cancer survivors, it is clear that Tai Chi clearly benefits people at the cellular level and can even help reverse the damage cancer and harmful cancer treatments do to the body.

The reasons for this are unclear, but one suspicion is that because Tai Chi incorporates two primary factors of health and wellness – physical health through exercise and mental/emotional health through meditation –it has an uncanny ability to help people in ways that exercise and mental/emotional coping techniques alone cannot.


Research unequivocally shows that Tai Chi helps cancer patients through a variety of ways. One point to remember, though, is that regular exercise is paramount for maximal, sustained benefits. For cancer patients to receive the best results possible, therefore, it is advisable that people embrace Tai Chi as a way of life and not a one-time thing. The Tao says, “Doing too much is the same as doing too little,” so working with a Tai Chi Master to help develop an individualized regimen would benefit cancer patients greatly.

Medical Studies and Resources

Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine

Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine

Clinical Breast Cancer

British Journal of Sports Medicine

Cancer Nursing

Public Health Report : Tai Chi and Cancer Treatment
Author : Eric L. Zielinski


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