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Overcoming Chemo Side Effects with Tai Chi

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Cancer related image Photo: Getty Images

In 2009, I wrote about Lisa, a 36-year-old legal analyst, who was attempting to get back to “normal life” after a bout with breast cancer. Prior to treatment she was an extremely articulate communicator, but afterward Lisa felt increasingly frustrated when she couldn’t remember a common word, and multi-tasking became nearly impossible for her.

It turns out Lisa has “chemo brain,” a phenomenon of short-term foggy thinking and forgetfulness that afflicts cancer patients after chemotherapy treatment. Nearly every chemotherapy patient experiences some short-term problems with memory and concentration, but for about 15 percent of cancer survivors, like Lisa, the effects are prolonged. It’s known medically as chemotherapy-induced cognitive impairment.

Until recently, cognitive losses in cancer survivors were dismissed or trivialized by doctors who blamed the phenomenon on fatigue from the illness or the simple aging process, but new research has confirmed chemo brain is real. However, researchers still aren’t quite sure what causes it.

University of Missouri health psychologist Stephanie Reid-Arndt has found evidence that the Chinese martial art tai chi might help cancer survivors to overcome chemo brain.

Tai chi involves practicing slow motion routines and is based on several principles, including mindfulness, breathing awareness, active relaxation and slow movements. The emphasis on slow movement makes tai chi, which literally means “supreme ultimate fist", particularly suited to a wide range of fitness levels, which makes it very relevant for those who have had chemotherapy and as a result might be experiencing physical limitations.

“Scientists have known for years that tai chi positively impacts physical and emotional health, but this small study also uncovered evidence that it might help cognitive functioning as well," said Reid-Arndt. “We know this activity can help people with their quality of life in general, and with this new pilot study, we are encouraged about how tai chi could also help those who have received chemotherapy.

The small-scale MU study followed a group of women who had undergone chemotherapy. The women participated in a 60-minute tai chi class two times a week for 10 weeks. The women were tested on memory, language, attention, stress, mood and fatigue before and after the 10-week sessions.

According to Reid-Arndt, the study results, published in Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice indicated the women had made significant improvements in their psychological health and cognitive abilities.

A 2005 Australian study published in International Journal of Lymphology found tai chi significantly helped breast cancer survivors manage lymphedema after a mastectomy or partial breast removal.

More than 11.4 million Americans are living with cancer, according to the American Cancer Society.

The National Institutes of Health has more information about managing chemotherapy side effects at http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/coping/chemo-side-effects/fatigue.

To learn more about tai chi and how it's being used to help cancer survivors, visit: http://nccam.nih.gov/health/taichi.

Lynette Summerill is an award-winning writer who lives in Scottsdale, Arizona. In addition to writing about cancer-related issues for EmpowHER, her work has been seen in newspapers and magazines around the world.

Sources: Tai Chi effects on neuropsychological, emotional, and physical functioning following cancer treatment: A pilot study. Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice, Available online 12 March 2011.Stephanie A. Reid-Arndt, Sandy Matsuda, Cathy R. Cox. doi:10.1016/j.ctcp.2011.02.005. Abstract accessed at http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1744388111000259.
Exercise for Limb Lymphoedema: Evidence that it is Beneficial. Amanda L Moseley, Neil B Piller. Journal of Lymphoedema, 2008, Vol 3, No 1. Article accessed at http://www.lymphormation.org/journal/view-journal-contents.php?journalId...

Reviewed June 10, 2011
Edited by Alison Stanton

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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.