Health Team

Duke cancer patients turn to Tai Chi to heal body, soothe anxiety

Posted June 13

— While doctors use drugs and other therapies to treat cancer, many patients seek help for other issues, such as depression, anxiety, fatigue, swelling and soreness.

Some of the patients looking for relief are turning to Tai Chi, an ancient martial art, to help cope.

Inside the "Quiet Room" at Duke University Hospital's Cancer Center, a group of patients are using meditation. Patricia Mortensen, a 74-year-old breast cancer patient, and others like their meditation paired with an exercise called Tai Chi.

Duke oncology nurse John Hillson leads them in a seated version of the ancient martial art.

"I make adaptations of everything that he does, for the chair, but he's adapted it to me, in the chair," Mortensen said.

Tai Chi was first designed for fighting, and for Mortensen, it still is.

Duke cancer patients turn to Tai Chi to heal body, soothe anxiety

One foe is lymphedema—swelling caused by blocked lymphatic fluid in the body. It's a common side effect of cancer treatments.

"A lot of the exercises deal with moving the lymph around," Mortensen said.

Hillson also helps patients and caregivers fight enemies of the mind and muscles: stress and anxiety. Hillson, who has practiced Tai Chi for 27 years, says these slow motion movements have another purpose, too.

"(It's) a way of helping to recover from injuries, but also a way to prevent injuries," Hillson said.

Proper position is everything in Tai Chi.

"Correct structure for pushing, lifting, carrying—how to hit somebody harder isn't much different from 'How do I lift the grandbaby or the groceries or open a heavier door," Hillson said.

Hillson offers the class every Friday, but it's also a skill patients like Mortensen can turn to anytime, anywhere.

"The mental process of clearing things out and getting in touch with what your body is talking about," Mortensen said.

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  • Robin Cubbon Jun 14, 7:28 a.m.
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    tai chi is taught near duke hospital by the taoist tai chi society []. i have been practicing for 6 years and found it very beneficial for keeping me stretched and balanced and especially good for stress reduction.