Breast Cancer Survivor Stays Fit With Tai Chi and Qi Gong

Written By:Stacy Simon

Editor’s Note: Guidelines on diet and physical activity are updated as scientific evidence continues to evolve. Please read the most recent recommendations here.

When breast cancer survivor Rose Phillips finished treatment, she felt she needed something to quiet her mind and allow her body to heal. Another survivor introduced her to the ancient Chinese practices of tai chi and qi gong. Phillips believes practicing what she calls a “soft martial art” helps her to relax, maintain peace of mind, and reduce stress. She’s now been practicing for 10 years, and even teaches her own class.

“I just gravitated toward tai chi and qi gong,” said Phillips. “It allowed me to be moving and stretching while quieting my mind at the same time.”

Both tai chi and qi gong have origins in China and involve slow physical movement, mental focus, and deep breathing. Some studies have shown that tai chi can help people reduce stress and qi gong can help people manage chronic pain. And studies consistently show that regular exercise can help breast cancer survivors lessen depression and fatigue, as well as joint pain from hormone therapy. Regular exercise has also been shown to improve survival and reduce risk of the cancer coming back.

A whole, viable person

Phillips was diagnosed with early stage triple negative breast cancer in 2003 at age 52. Her cancer was found after a routine mammogram. She had an ultrasound immediately, and was told she needed to see a surgeon. “I felt numb, like I was in a different dimension,” said Phillips. “Everyone else’s life was going on as normal, and my life had stopped.”

Phillips’ mother had died of ovarian cancer after just 1 year of treatments that Phillips described as “terrible.” “I didn’t want to be like my mother,” said Phillips. “I wanted to know I could go through treatment and come out a survivor and a whole person, a viable person.” She told her surgeon she wanted to know what to expect without sugarcoating.

“My big thing was, I wanted to talk to someone who didn’t have an agenda,” said Phillips. “Friends and family all say, ‘You’re going to be great.’ I wanted to talk to someone who wasn’t going to tell me everything was going to be rosy.” The surgeon gave Phillips an American Cancer Society Reach To Recovery pamphlet. Through this program, volunteers who are themselves breast cancer survivors provide education and emotional support to people facing a breast cancer diagnosis or treatment. Phillips called the 800 number listed in the pamphlet and made an appointment. “That woman made such a difference in my attitude,” said Phillips. “She was my age and she had the same surgery I had. She had chemo and radiation like I eventually did. She was so positive, and a 5-year survivor.”

Phillips trained to become a Reach To Recovery volunteer herself. She now calls newly diagnosed breast cancer patients to answer their questions and listen to their concerns. Her volunteer work also includes serving on the survivorship committee of her local Making Strides Against Breast Cancer event in Louisville, Kentucky. Making Strides Against Breast Cancer is the American Cancer Society's premiere event to raise awareness and funds to fight breast cancer while celebrating those who survived and remembering those who didn’t.

Being proactive

"I really think it's so important for us to be proactive in our own health. I'm not going to sit back and wait for a doctor to say, 'You've got to take this pill.'"

Rose Phillips

Studies have shown time and again that exercise is a crucial part of healthier living and reducing overall cancer risk. For breast cancer survivors, exercising after diagnosis has been specifically linked to a lower risk of dying from the disease and a lower risk of breast cancer recurrence. The American Cancer Society recommends cancer survivors get at least 150 minutes of exercise each week, which should include strength training at least 2 days a week.

In addition to practicing tai chi and qi gong, Phillips walks 3-4 miles every other day. On the alternate days, she does 45 minutes of strength training. She also meditates every day, which she says takes her mind off of everything else, and allows her to relax and let go of stress.

“I really think it’s so important for us to be proactive in our own health,” said Phillips. “I’m not going to sit back and wait for a doctor to say, ‘Rose, you’ve got to take this pill.’”

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

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