A few summers back I was at our family cottage with my good friend Ali Stark, a certified Qigong instructor (pronounced chee-gong). We were standing overlooking the lake and she showed me how to feel the “Qi”, meaning “energy”, that the Eastern practice harnesses. I mirrored her as she stood with feet hip-width apart, rubbed her palms together, and then allowed her arms to float out and back, finally ending with palms facing each other a few inches apart at chest level. It felt as though my hands were holding an invisible orb of energy at my heart.
But it was only last month that I learned that Ali’s mother, Claire Stark, went through treatment for breast cancer a few years ago. During her medical care, Claire practised Qigong breathing and Qigong movement, which, she said “helped me keep calm and motivated”. The Qigong was offered at one of Canada’s leading cancer support centres, Wellspring. Meanwhile, my new friend Florianne Yeung, recently told me that Reiki (pronounced ray-kee), an energy-based healing art originating in Japan and also offered at Wellspring, was a lifesaver for her when her breast cancer recurred in 2005. “I was devasted, scared, stressed, and low in mood” about the recurrence, she told me. But in her first Reiki treatment, she lay on a massage table while a practitioner used their hands to serve as a conduit for “universal energy”. Florianne said, “I immediately felt the energy buzzing. I felt so relaxed and light, as if my body was floating in air. It made me forget all my health problems, not only during the one-hour treatment but for quite a while.”
Initially I found it hard to grasp the concept of some unseen energy in the universe that we could tap into. But then I thought back to high school physics, remembering that a ball on top of a hill prior to rolling down possesses potential energy. And I’m aware that the body has an electrical charge because my heartbeat is sometimes compromised when I become dehydrated and need electrically-charged minerals like potassium and sodium. I can imagine how empowering and encouraging it would be for patients to address both their fear and their fatigue during treatment by accessing this undercurrent of energy.
The prevalence of these treatments at hospitals across Canada speaks to their acceptance as beneficial adjuncts to the harsh medical interventions of surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. A quick Google search showed that Wellspring offers both Reiki and Qigong free of charge in most of their Ontario and Alberta locations, though in some centres Qigong is now being combined with Tai Chi and Meditation into an integrated treatment called Zenerchi. As the Wellspring website explains, “Some benefits [of Zenerchi] include a strengthened immune system, restored and improved energy flow, improved balance and coordination and relaxed body and mind.” Qigong and Reiki are also available and free of charge in Southwestern Ontario at HopeSpring Cancer Support Centres. You can also find Qigong at Jewish General Hospital’s Hope & Cope Wellness Centre in Montreal and even at such remote locations as Cape Breton Cancer Centre in Nova Scotia.
Of course, these two treatments are complementary to mainstream medical cancer care, and should only be undertaken after consulting with a physician. But the value of an improved immune system and its potential contribution to survival must be on the mind of every woman dealing with breast cancer. A study published last year in the journal Medicines and made available through the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) website reports that “Qigong practice has been linked to prevention and improved cancer-related mortality rates.” And in 2013, a randomized controlled trial following 96 breast cancer patients in Shanghai who underwent both radiation and Qigong (a study also available through the NIH website) reported that Qigong was not only safe to undertake while involved actively with radiation treatment, but also that the Qigong group had lower depressive symptoms, lower fatigue, and better overall quality of life.
I wanted to know how breast cancer patients should choose between the two therapies, so I asked Ali and Florianne how these treatments differed. I also researched how they evolved to be adjuncts to oncology. While both practices channel life energy, Qigong is a 4,000-year-old Chinese practice, while Reiki originated in 1922, in Japan. Florianne explained that Qigong accesses a woman’s own energy, whereas Reiki taps into a universal energy. Because Qigong involves standing postures, as well as movements, visualization, and a focus on the breath, it might be more attractive to patients who are more mobile. In contrast, Reiki is received in a supine position with the help of a trained practitioner. However, Qigong can be adapted to people with different levels of mobility and energy. “The healing Qigong forms that I practice,” says Ali, “Can be modified to one’s comfort level and done for just three minutes a day or for two hours.” I was so interested I found myself tracing the history of Qigong back to its origins before the Han dynasty, when it was a religious and philosophical practice. Although there have been cult-like radical branches of the practice as it evolved, in the mid-20th century it standardized into the healing, meditation-in-motion art that it is today.
These days, both of my friends are helping other breast cancer patients. Ali teaches a Women’s Qigong program in Toronto, tailored for women’s bodies and female health issues. Many who attend her classes are either undergoing treatment for breast cancer or are in recovery. Florianne now provides Reiki to patients at Wellspring’s Downtown Toronto location. She says that clients there can take advantage of a maximum of three sessions, but adds that often three is sufficient because the treatment has lasting effects. Even so, if a client requests more sessions, they have the option of joining a wait-list
I recently dropped in to see Wellspring’s Westerkirk House location at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Hospital after attending a medical appointment elsewhere on the hospital campus. Centre Manager Barb Riley graciously agreed to an impromptu interview and showed me around the beautifully furnished building with its warm and caring staff. The room where Reiki is offered was in use, but I had a chance to see the large upstairs room where Qigong-based Zenerchi takes place under instructor David Leopold. It was a wet and cold November day, but Barb told me that in warm weather David has been known to take his classes outdoors and get participants to hug trees, which, after all, breathe out the oxygen needed for the Qigong breath, and store more energy than we know.
I asked Barb, in her view what was the reaction clients of the centre had to Zenerchi and Reiki. She emphasized the need for non-speaking therapies so that everyone felt welcomed and every client’s needs were met. “Some people don’t like to talk or just can’t talk about it,” Barb said, reinforcing the benefits of therapies that involve meditative movement and touch. Reiki and Zenerchi don’t need words to be effective. They rely solely on the body, energy, and the simple act of inhaling and exhaling.