When breast cancer patient Linda Johnson first heard about a new tai chi class being offered at City of Hope, she was skeptical. Although she had been looking for an exercise program to boost her overall health, she wasn't sure the ancient Chinese practice would be a good fit, given her physical limitations.
“I've had surgery. I've been through chemo. I'm on blood thinners. I can't afford to get banged up in some tough, martial arts-type class,” she said. “But it turns out, tai chi isn't anything like that.”
Often referred to as “meditation in motion,” tai chi is a Chinese discipline that dates back thousands of years. While the practice is rooted in martial arts, the tai chi taught at City of Hope consists of a series of slow, repeated movements and deep breathing. Because no sudden or strenuous actions are involved, it is ideal for seniors as well anyone weakened by illness or intensive therapy.
“People worry that it will be hard, like we're doing Cirque du Soleil contortions here,” said instructor Chris Tucker. “Not at all. Tai chi is user-friendly, relaxing and just about anybody can do it.”
Medical researchers have long documented the physical benefits of tai chi for those suffering a variety of chronic diseases, including cancer. A recent study found that tai chi's slow, fluid movements consistently helped middle-aged and older adults improve their walking speed and strength, and in some cases reduced pain and stiffness.
“Tai chi oxygenates the tissue," Tucker explained. "It makes your breathing more efficient. It improves balance, strength and bone density. It also helps you achieve a more peaceful state -- a mental and spiritual harmony -- which puts you in a much better position to combat whatever health challenges you may have.”
Patients familiar with tai chi were, in fact, asking for a class at City of Hope, said Joanne Man, operations coordinator of the Sheri & Les Biller Patient and Family Resource Center. “We're always looking for complementary therapies that help alleviate the stress, anxiety and isolation that cancer can create,” she said. “From the start, the feedback has been wonderful. Patients love it.”
“Now I can take a deep breath without hesitation,” said Linda, who endured multiple rounds of chemotherapy and its debilitating effects. For her, and many others, the benefits transcend the physical. “Tai chi,” she said, “is healing of the mind.”
Tucker, who studied tai chi in China and is also a certified acupuncturist, helps each participant work at his or her individual level to derive maximum benefits.
And a beginner need not move at all. "Come on in, grab a chair, sit down and start by just doing the breathing with us," said Tucker. "Even at that level you'll get phenomenal benefits, and you can grow over time at your own pace. If you can get to the class, I'll make sure you can do the class."
Because language and cultural differences can be serious obstacles for cancer patients and their families seeking medical and emotional support, using bilingual clinical social workers to coordinate care and offer counseling is key.
Clinical social workers identify sources of distress and teach coping skills to manage the challenges that come with treatment. They also connect patients to community resources for mental health services, as well as financial and transportation assistance.