The study examined qigong in patients receiving radiation therapy and included a follow-up period to assess its benefits over time, according to researchers.
“We were […] particularly interested to see if qigong would benefit patients experiencing depressive symptoms at the start of treatment,” said Lorenzo Cohen, Ph.D., a professor in the University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center’s Departments of General Oncology and Behavioral Science.
“It is important for cancer patients to manage stress because it can have a profoundly negative effect on biological systems and inflammatory profiles.”
For the study, Cohen and his colleagues recruited 96 women with stage 1-3 breast cancer from Fudan University Shanghai Cancer Center in Shanghai, China.
About half of the women — 49 — were randomly assigned to a qigong group consisting of five 40-minute classes each week during their five-to-six week course of radiation therapy. The remaining 47 women comprised a control group receiving standard care.
The program incorporated a modified version of Chinese medical qigong, which consisted of synchronizing one’s breath with various exercises, the researchers explained.
Participants in both groups completed assessments at the beginning, middle and end of radiation therapy and then one and three months later. Different aspects of quality of life were measured, including depressive symptoms, fatigue, sleep disturbances, and overall quality of life.
According to the researchers, patients in the qigong group reported a steady decline in depressive symptom scores beginning at the end of radiation therapy, with a mean score of 12.3, through the three month post-radiation follow-up with a score of 9.5. No changes were noted in the control group over time, the study found.
The study also found that qigong was especially helpful for women reporting high baseline depressive symptoms, Cohen said.
“We examined women’s depressive symptoms at the start of the study to see if women with higher levels would benefit more,” he said.
“In fact, women with low levels of depressive symptoms at the start of radiotherapy had good quality of life throughout treatment and three months later regardless of whether they were in the qigong or control group. However, women with high depressive symptoms in the control group reported the worst levels of depressive symptoms, fatigue, and overall quality of life that were significantly improved for the women in the qigong group.”
As the benefits of qigong were largely observed after treatment concluded, researchers suggest qigong may prevent a delayed symptom burden or expedite the recovery process, especially for women with elevated depressive symptoms at the start of radiation therapy. Cohen notes the delayed effect could be explained by the cumulative nature of the treatments, as the benefits often take time to be realized.
According to the researchers, the findings support other previously reported trials examining the benefits of qigong, but are too preliminary to offer clinical recommendations.
They note that additional research is needed to understand the possible biological mechanisms involved and further explore the use of qigong in ethnically diverse populations with different forms of cancer.
The study was published in the journal Cancer.