Open Your Mind to the Benefits of Tai Chi for Cancer Patients
Breathe in, breathe out, and enjoy the gentle movement of Tai Chi as a beneficial fitness choice after cancer
Women dealing with breast cancer, whether they are currently in treatment, recovering from surgery or trying to regain strength and range of motion, have long known that gentle exercise will benefit them. However, the benefits of Tai Chi for cancer patients are less well-known than those of yoga and Pilates. It may be worth your time to explore Tai Chi as another option.
Due to the types of surgeries women with breast cancer are often required to have, and the added possibility of chemotherapy and radiation, even yoga can sometimes be too demanding. One of the benefits of Tai Chi is that it is more gentle than yoga.
Why Tai Chi? It benefits cancer patients in mind and body
Tai Chi is often described as “meditation in motion” since this eastern exercise keeps the body constantly moving. It combines slow, graceful movements with both meditation and breathing techniques. Today most people consider Tai Chi a form of exercise, but its roots are believed to have originated in 12th-century China as a martial art.
The techniques used in contemporary Tai Chi address the body and mind as an interconnected system. The benefits of Tai Chi include not only enhanced mental clarity and physical health, but improved posture, balance, flexibility and strength.
Recognizing Tai Chi: It’s a bird, it’s a crane
During this low-impact, slow-motion exercise, participants go without pausing through a series of motions most often named for animal actions. For instance, in a movement called Grasp Sparrow’s Tail, the left hand begins at chin level as though grasping the head of the bird, the right hand placed to the side of the hip as though smoothing the bird’s tail. In this case, the bird symbolizes consciousness, air, spirit and breath.
Tai Chi differs from other types of exercise in several respects. The movements are usually circular and never forced, the muscles are relaxed rather than tensed, the joints are not fully extended or bent, and connective tissues are not stretched. What this means is that Tai Chi can be easily adapted for anyone, from the very fit to someone confined to a wheelchair or, as in the case of a breast cancer survivor, recovering from surgery or treatments.
Research supports Tai Chi for good health
Tai Chi has shown its potential benefits for cancer patients in research. A 2008 study at the University of Rochester, published in Medicine and Sport Science, concluded that quality of life, aerobic capacity, muscular strength and flexibility improved in women with breast cancer who did 12 weeks of Tai Chi. These declined in a control group that received only supportive therapy.
Lorenzo Cohen, Ph.D., a professor in the Departments of General Oncology and Behavioral Science at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, explains that Tai Chi shares numerous physical benefits long attributed to yoga, which include:
- Reduced heart rate and blood pressure
- Increased cardiovascular efficiency
- Increased flexibility and energy
- Improved posture and sleep patterns
Tai Chi has other benefits, as well, like reducing the risk of falls for elderly people. And some research has shown that Tai Chi can bolster the immune system while decreasing the production of stress hormones like cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine.
Dr. Cohen also points out that Tai Chi provides psychological benefits including:
- Improved mood and feelings of well-being
- Increased self-acceptance
- Decreased anxiety and depression
- Improved concentration and memory
When deciding what type of mind-body practice is best for you, Dr. Cohen suggests choosing whatever fits into your lifestyle. “Ask yourself which practice you will do on a daily basis,” he says. “After six to eight weeks of daily practice, you will begin to see physical improvements in your flexibility, your sleeping patterns, and your physical energy. It takes about six months of daily practice to see the inner transformation that brings about a pervasive calmness, self-awareness, and an open heart.”
What should you expect from a typical Tai Chi class?
Tai Chi can be practiced indoors or out, so in climates or seasons where the weather permits, it’s not uncommon to see people practicing these graceful movements at a park or on a beach. Comfortable clothing is always suggested. Especially as a breast cancer patient, to get the full benefits of Tai Chi, note these four areas of focus:
Movements: Tai Chi involves a series of movements, which are practiced in sets of opposites, so a twist to the right will be followed by a twist to the left. A series of movements is called a form or routine. You and your instructor should decide what movements and forms are appropriate for you.
Forms: A form can include between 20 and 100 movements. Depending upon which form you are doing, it can take up to 20 minutes to perform it.
Breathing: Paying attention to the breath is a key benefit of Tai Chi. While performing the movements, you will be asked to make sure the breath is originating from the diaphragm. Breathing is natural to all of us, but it’s typical for people to actually take shallow (nearly panting) breaths without realizing it. Being mindful and paying attention to our breath can be a first step in learning to calm the mind and body.
Meditative focus: Not only will you learn to concentrate on your breath, you will also learn to concentrate on relaxed awareness, often called “meditative concentration,” which involves the area just below your navel. It is believed that qi (our circulating life force) begins below the navel and travels through the body.
Tai Chi works equally well in a group setting or alone. Once you’ve worked with an instructor long enough to feel comfortable, one of the great benefits of Tai Chi is just this versatility.
Be mindful of your limitations
While Tai Chi is a low-impact exercise and considered reasonably safe for everyone, it’s always a good idea to err on the side of caution, especially when you’ve just gone through (or are receiving) treatments for breast cancer. Here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Talk to your doctor. Before starting Tai Chi or any exercise regime, discuss it with your doctor to weigh the benefits and risks. It’s particularly important to talk to your doctor if you’ve recently had surgery, are currently undergoing chemotherapy or radiation treatments. Additionally, if you haven’t exercised in a while, or if you have osteoporosis or joint problems, be sure to consult with your physician.
- Begin gradually. This isn’t a race, so approach Tai Chi with the learner’s mindset: Learn how to position your body properly, and take your time.
- Know when not to practice. If you are fatigued, don’t feel well, or have an infection, listen to your body – it is another skill you can expect to obtain through Tai Chi.
- Know your limits. If you’re unable to stand for long periods of time, you can do modified versions of Tai Chi for similar benefits. You can do them in a chair or bed. Talk to your instructor about other ways you can modify Tai Chi, to assist in your recovery and benefit your life after cancer for a long time to come.