The ancient mind-body practice of qigong may help relieve depressive symptoms and enhance quality of life among women undergoing radiotherapy for breast cancer.

Mind-body practices appear to improve quality of life in cancer survivors, explained Lorenzo Cohen, PhD, of The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, and colleagues in their report for the journal Cancer. However, they pointed out, little is known about the benefits of such activities for persons undergoing radiotherapy.

Working with associates in Shanghai, China, where the study patients were located, Cohen’s group randomized 49 women with breast cancer to a modified version of Chinese medical qigong consisting of synchronizing one’s breath with various exercises. These women attended five weekly, 40-minute classes during their 5-to-6-week course of radiotherapy. An additional 47 women with breast cancer were assigned to a wait-list control group and received the standard of care.

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The mean age of the participants was 46 years (range 25 to 64 years).They had stage 0 disease (7%), stage I disease (25%), stage II disease (40%), or stage III disease (28%). Slightly more than half the women (54%) had undergone mastectomy.

Multilevel analyses revealed that compared with the control group, the qigong participants reported fewer depressive symptoms over time. Depressive symptom scores in the qigong group declined from a mean of 12.3 at the end of radiotherapy to a mean of 9.5 through the 3-month postradiation follow-up. No changes in depressive symptoms were noted in the control group over time.

Women in the qigong group who had elevated depressive symptoms at the start of radiotherapy particularly benefited from the intervention, reporting clinically significant degrees of less fatigue and better overall quality of life than the controls. Women with low levels of depressive symptoms at the start of radiotherapy had good quality of life throughout treatment and 3 months later regardless of whether they were in the qigong group or the control group.

No significant differences between groups emerged for two other outcomes measured: sleep disturbance and cortisol slopes.

The fact that the benefits of qigong were largely observed after treatment ended may indicate that the practice prevents a delayed symptom burden or speeds the recovery process, particularly for women with high levels of depressive symptoms at the start of radiotherapy.