Health

Tai Chi helps breast cancer survivors, study finds

A UCLA study found that breast cancer survivors who practiced Tai Chi benefited from reduced inflammation, a risk factor for cancer recurrence.
A UCLA study found that breast cancer survivors who practiced Tai Chi benefited from reduced inflammation, a risk factor for cancer recurrence.
Courtesy of UCLA

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Breast cancer survivors worried about their cancer coming back may want to try Tai Chi. In a new study, UCLA researchers found that the ancient martial art significantly reduced inflammation in the body – a risk factor for cancer recurrence.

The key appears to be Tai Chi’s effectiveness at relieving stress. 

Many breast cancer survivors suffer from insomnia, which in turn causes stress. Stress causes inflammation as the body’s cells prepare to deal with threats, and this process produces proteins that help cancer cells grow and possibly spread. Cancer survivors suffering from stress are at greater risk because cancer cells may still be present in their bodies.

To find out whether Tai Chi could help, UCLA researchers studied 90 breast cancer survivors with insomnia.

Dr. Michael Irwin, the study’s author, said those who participated in a three-month Tai Chi course experienced significant reductions in inflammation compared with those who received cognitive therapy designed only to help them sleep better.

"What’s really surprising about this study is the magnitude of the change we’ve found with Tai Chi within a very short period of time," Irwin said.

The difference appeared to be that while cognitive therapy is designed to address psychological issues that may make it hard for someone to fall asleep, Tai Chi targets the body’s stress system, which is more directly linked to inflammation, he said.

The study did not measure whether Tai Chi also helped the breast cancer survivors sleep better. Irwin said that would be examined in a follow-up study. The study also did not measure whether the women who practiced Tai Chi actually experienced lower rates of cancer recurrence. What Irwin said the current study does indicate is that Tai Chi reduces a significant risk factor -- inflammation -- known to make a cancer's recurrence more likely.