October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Due to successful campaigns, most of us are aware of breast cancer. We know patients often go through grueling surgeries, chemotherapy, or radiation or all three. The side effects of cancer treatment are often described as the worst part of the illness – especially since the illness is often symptom-free in the early stages. Patients in treatment often suffer from nausea, anxiety, depression and physical weakness. Yet, studies show that exercise is good for them. It is associated with faster recovery times, better mood, lower death rates and increased energy. It is hard enough for you and me on a healthy, relaxed day to exercise. Can you imagine what it is like for those who are weak, nauseated and fighting for their lives? Most exercise is too intense for them. That’s why patients should consider Tai Chi exercise for Breast Cancer recovery because it addresses:
Fatigue: “It can increase your energy, which sounds a little backward,” … “You’re expelling energy to gain more. If you increase your calorie burn, it can decrease the fatigue.”
Flexibility and Strength: The two diminish significantly during breast cancer treatment. Both as a side effect of treatment and due to reduced physical activity during and after treatment. A 2006 study showed that, “Practicing Tai Chi for 12 weeks enabled breast cancer survivors to increase their functional capacity significantly more than a control group that did not participate in Tai Chi.”
Lymphedema: Those who have undergone a mastectomy or lumpectomy also suffer the side effects of lymphedema. This is because several of their lymph nodes which drain lymph fluid were likely removed during the surgery, leading to excess build up of lymph in their armpits/arms. “Some experts believe that exercise may even play a role in rehabilitating the arm so that it can better withstand the day-to-day stresses that can lead to lymphedema.”
Exercise plans to help combat lymphedma include aspects of strength-training, flexibility and aerobic conditioning. However, these patients cannot just engage in any exercise, due to weakness from treatment and the risk of straining and injuring themselves. Tai Chi is perfect because it includes all three aspects, yet is gentle enough for the needs of breast cancer patients.
Julie Everett, a physical therapist at John Hopkins recommends, “beginner yoga and tai chi for breast cancer patients because both forms of exercise will start to stretch the patient’s arms, targeting the areas that were affected through the treatment.” She is a certified lymphedema specialist.
Mood: A 2004 study at the Wilmot Cancer Center in Rochester, NY (Wilmot), compared female breast cancer patients in a 12-week Tai Chi program to those in a psychosocial support group. It found that the women who practiced Tai Chi reported higher self-esteem and improved quality of live compared to the other group. The results for self-esteem indicate that physical issues may mean more to breast cancer patients’ self esteem and that being active in Tai Chi provided a sense of not only belonging and support but control over their lives as well (since they cannot control cancer).
Weight Gain: Most people expect cancer patients to look thin and frail, but that is not often the case. In fact, due to the use of steroids to manage the side effects of treatment, cancer patients may actually gain weight. Another study at Wilmot showed that patients who practiced Tai Chi had a reduction in body fat. Other studies have shown that Tai Chi helps burn calories which leads to weight loss.
Breast Cancer is a terrible illness with even more terrible treatment side effects. However, we have made amazing strides in diagnosing and treating it. While Tai Chi may not prevent or cure cancer, it may help manage the side effects of treatment and improve the lives of survivors. It addresses fatigue, lymphedema, strength, flexibility, weight gain and improves mood. If your or someone you know is in treatment for, has completed treatment or is a breast cancer survivor, consider recommending or trying Tai Chi. Before you begin Tai Chi exercise for breast cancer, consult with your doctor, take it slow and always listen to your body.
Mustian, KM. Katula, JA. Zhao, H. (2006) A Pilot Study to Assess the Influence of Tai Chi Chuan on Functional Capacity Among Breast Cancer Survivors. Supportive Oncology 4(3):139-145. Available online at http://www.supportiveoncology.net/journal/articles/0403139.pdf Accessed 23/01/2011