The National Cancer Institute reports that one in eight women in the United States (approximately 13 percent) will develop breast cancer in her lifetime. In fact, next to skin cancer, breast cancer is the most common type of cancer among U.S. women.
The Impact of Breast Cancer
Although the exact cause is not known, the risk of developing breast cancer increases with age. The risk is particularly high in women age 60 and older. Because of their age, these women are already at increased risk for osteoporosis. Given the rising incidence of breast cancer and the improvement of long-term survival rates, bone health and fracture prevention have become important health issues among breast cancer survivors.
Osteoporosis often can be prevented. It is known as a silent disease because, if undetected, bone loss can progress for many years without symptoms until a fracture occurs. Osteoporosis has been called a childhood disease with old age consequences because building healthy bones in youth helps prevent osteoporosis and fractures later in life. However, it is never too late to adopt new habits for healthy bones.
The Link Between Breast Cancer and Osteoporosis
Women who have had breast cancer treatment may be at increased risk for osteoporosis and fracture for several reasons. First, estrogen has a protective effect on bone, and reduced levels of the hormone trigger bone loss. Because of chemotherapy or surgery, many breast cancer survivors experience a loss of ovarian function and, consequently, a drop in estrogen levels. Women who were premenopausal before their cancer treatment tend to go through menopause earlier than those who have not had breast cancer.
Studies suggest that chemotherapy also may have a direct negative effect on bone. In addition, the breast cancer itself may stimulate the production of osteoclasts, the cells that break down bone.
Osteoporosis Management Strategies
Several strategies can reduce one’s risk for osteoporosis or lessen the effects of the disease in women who have already been diagnosed.
Nutrition: Some studies have found a link between diet and breast cancer. As far as bone health is concerned, a well-balanced diet, high in fiber and low in fat, rich in calcium and vitamin D3 is important.
Supplements can help ensure that the calcium requirement is met each day. The Institute of Medicine recommends a daily calcium intake of at least 1,000 mg (milligrams) for men and women up to age 50. Women over age 50 and men over age 70 should increase their intake.
Vitamin D3 plays an important role in calcium absorption and bone health. Food sources of vitamin D include egg yolks, saltwater fish, and liver. Many people, especially those who are older or housebound, may need vitamin D3 supplements to achieve the recommended intake.
Exercise: Like muscle, bone is living tissue that responds to exercise by becoming stronger. The best activity for your bones is weight-bearing exercise that forces you to work against gravity. Some examples include walking, climbing stairs, weight training, and dancing. Regular exercise, such as walking, may help prevent bone loss and will provide many other health benefits. Recent research suggests that exercise also may reduce breast cancer risk in younger women.
Healthy lifestyle: Smoking is bad for bones as well as the heart and lungs. Women who smoke tend to go through menopause earlier, resulting in earlier reduction in levels of the bone-preserving hormone estrogen and triggering earlier bone loss. In addition, smokers may absorb less calcium from their diets. Some studies have found a slightly higher risk of breast cancer in women who drink alcohol, and evidence suggests that alcohol can have a negative effect on bone health. Those who drink heavily are more prone to bone loss and fracture, because of both poor nutrition and an increased risk of falling.
Bone density test: A bone mineral density (BMD) test measures bone density in various parts of the body. This safe and painless test can detect osteoporosis before a fracture occurs and can predict one’s chances of fracturing in the future. The BMD test can help determine whether medication should be considered. A woman recovering from breast cancer should ask her doctor whether she might be a candidate for a bone density test.
NIH Osteoporosis and Related Bone Diseases ~ National Resource Center
Toll free: 800-624-BONE (2663)
For more information on breast cancer, visit:
National Cancer Institute
Toll free: 800-4-CANCER (800-422-6237)