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Tai Chi helps cancer survivors sleep

June 22, 2010 12:00:00 AM PDT
It's the part of surviving cancer that few people ever talk about. Chronic insomnia often sets in during diagnosis and treatment. The stress of the ordeal takes a huge toll on sleep, but there are effective ways to cope without medication. One technique involves meditative movement.It's been four years since 53-year-old Miranda Barone was diagnosed with breast cancer, yet her recovery continues.

"Suddenly going to sleep became a battle," said Barone."It was not a restful thing. I would look at my bed thinking of the kind of stressful situation I would be faced with that night."

About 30 percent of breast cancer survivors have trouble sleeping long after they've been treated. Chronic insomnia can destroy a person's quality of life.

So researchers at UCLA's Jonsson Cancer Center wanted to find the best way to get these women back to sleep.

"There are really two kinds of ways to approach insomnia," said Dr. Michael Irwin. "One way is to focus strictly on the behaviors, the thoughts and the beliefs you have about sleep, which is a cognitive behavioral approach."

The other approach is a more physical approach -- the ancient meditative moving art of Tai Chi. Shifting weight and targeted arm movements focus the mind. Slowed breathing helps reduce stress.

"Tai Chi has been found to be effective in older adults," said Dr. Irwin.

"In the study participants get formal Tai Chi instruction three times a week. Previous studies show you should practice Tai Chi three times a day to reap the benefits.

"It essentially targets the stress response that we all experience. Can be very beneficial," said Dr. Irwin.

Tai Chi was one part of the study. The other was cognitive behavioral therapy and that's what Barone ended up doing. She learned new behaviors that are slowly helping her get some sleep.

"It's been a wonderful way of recuperating my sleep and having a better relationship with the night itself," said Barone.

Some tips Barone learned to get a restful night include: keeping her bedroom dark and cool, no TV watching and deep breathing. UCLA researchers are looking for more breast cancer survivors for this ongoing study. Besides free therapy, participants also receive a stipend.