When doctors diagnosed Krana Dworkin with breast cancer last year, she wanted to incorporate her mind, as well as her body, into her treatment.
So in addition to her lumpectomy and radiation, the 83-year-old Pikesville resident began taking weekly classes in qigong at the University of Maryland Rehabilitation and Orthopaedic Institute in Baltimore. It's a traditional Chinese practice integrating breathing techniques, focused intention and simple body postures to enhance energy flow.
"I like to have an active role in my health," Dworkin says. "Qigong teaches stress is not what happens to you but how you choose to respond to what happens. That puts me in the active healing role."
Pronounced "chee-gung," qigong is a powerful mind-body practice, says Kevin Chen, an associate professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine's Center for Integrative Medicine and Dworkin's qigong instructor.
"Regular practice of qigong can help patients in many ways," he says. "It can improve energy and strength, balance the autonomic nervous system, improve coping skills, improve mood and, improve health and vitality."
Hospitals and businesses throughout Maryland are embracing qigong, pointing to its medical and mental benefits, and starting Sunday, the Center for Integrative Medicine will host its first weeklong qigong retreat to teach cancer patients, cancer survivors and their families qigong and other self-healing techniques.
"We believe that patients with cancer and their families will deeply benefit, physically and psychologically, from learning this ancient healing art," says Dr. Delia Chiaramonte, assistant professor and associate director at the Center for Integrative Medicine.
While styles of qigong vary, they all incorporate a relaxed posture, a straight spine, breathing from the diaphragm, easy fluid movements and a peaceful awareness, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.
At its core is the intention of healing, says Dr. Sravani Mudumbi, a qigong instructor who also specializes in physical medicine and rehabilitation at Johns Hopkins Hospital.
The "qi" refers to one's life force or vitality, she says. Modern medicine does a great job of explaining and treating what's going on physically in the body, but it can miss early signs of illnesses, she says.
"What about when continuously moving processes are off balance?" Mudumbi says. "That's very hard to pick up with modern medicine."
For example, stressors like dehydration can cause kidney impairment. But patients may not notice this until the kidneys are so impaired that they experience overall weakness. At that point, doctors can test for kidney problems.
In some cases, qigong may cue the body to restore function by influencing the brain's transmission of nerve impulses, which leads to the release of chemicals and hormones, and to immune system interactions, Mudumbi says.
Qigong and its sibling practice, tai chi, can also help with issues like sleep impairment and low energy levels — conditions often treated with medication, she says.
Chen agrees, saying his students have reported less fatigue, less stress and better sleep since starting qigong.
While studies show qigong benefits bone health, cardiopulmonary fitness and balance, research studying psychological benefits is limited.
Still, instructors, students and patients say the practice has improved their quality of life.
Bridget Hughes, co-founder of Healing Point Acupuncture and Healing Arts in Columbia, teaches qigong at Howard County General Hospital. She says many of her students began taking classes five years ago as part of their cancer treatment and recovery. Now, most students are there to participate in their own healing or to simply reduce stress, she says.
"We all have inner resources for healing, and most people know that our inner states of mind and heart affect our health," she says. "What most people don't have is a dependable skill to unlock the mind-body changes that are associated with improvements in healing and health."
During the Center for Integrative Medicine retreat, Chen will focus on Taiji five-element qigong, which is mostly meditation, and Guo Lin new qigong, which uses gentle movement and walking.
Research shows these qigong forms can help cancer patients and survivors by improving immune function, reducing stress hormones and raising pain thresholds, Chen says.
Along with qigong instruction and practice, the retreat will include discussions about attitudes that help people cope with cancer and manage stress; lessons on diet, acupressure and mindfulness; and information about incorporating qigong into a cancer-treatment plan.
"The external help will not work unless you change your internal environment," Chen says. "If you don't change your general environment, the cancer will come back later. … We want to bring the self confidence back into the whole recovery and self-healing process. Search for help within."
Dworkin, who will participate in the retreat, says qigong has changed her perspective on life, making her more aware of her thoughts.
"The thing [Chen] teaches us all the time is living in the moment," she says. "I have to stop saying, 'Oh my goodness,' 'Oh dear' and 'What's happening.' I have to say, 'What can I do to tackle the problem?'"
Now breast cancer-free, Dworkin says she is upbeat about her future.
"I am not depressed or anxious," she says, "so I'm giving qigong the credit for that."
If you go
The Center for Integrative Medicine's seven-day qigong retreat for cancer patients, cancer survivors and their families runs from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., beginning Sunday at the Institute for Integrative Health, 1407 Fleet St., Baltimore. Cost: $995. Family members cost $695 and must attend with the person who has cancer. Lunch is provided each day. For more information, visit compmed.umm.edu/qigongwellness or call 410-706-6166.
Can't make the retreat but still want to learn qigong? Several area hospitals and businesses offer classes, including:
•Anne Arundel Medical Center, 443-481-1000
•Baltimore Tai Chi, 410-296-4944
•Howard County General Hospital, 410-740-7890
•Jing Ying Institute of Kung Fu and Tai Chi in Arnold, 410-431-5200
•The Yoga Center of Columbia, 410-720-4340