By Margot Malin, Founder and CEO of Lots To Live For, Inc.
Have you recently been diagnosed with cancer and are evaluating treatment options? Have you completed cancer treatment and have learned that you have developed osteopenia or osteoporosis? If you are at any stage of the cancer journey then this blog post is for you. Bone Health and Cancer – there are no easy answers. But that doesn’t mean that you should not ask the right questions. Learn about risks and research your options.
Chemotherapy, steroid medications, or hormonal therapy may cause osteoporosis, or the thinning of the bones, which makes them weak and fragile, and puts them at risk of fracture. “Accelerated bone loss is a real issue in cancer care,” says Kenneth W. Lyles, MD, professor of medicine and medical director of Medicine Site-Based Research at Duke University Medical Center. Therefore, it is important to have an open discussion with one’s health care provider and/or oncology team to learn about the side effects that can be caused by specific cancer treatments and how they can be mitigated. You are your own health advocate and it is helpful to educate yourself and participate in decision making about your treatment plan. Knowing the risks to bone health before starting treatment, and how you can to maximize bone health is important. “Marked improvements in survival for many cancers mean that strategies to limit bone loss and reduce fracture risk must be incorporated into the care plans for nearly all patients with cancer.” (NIH.gov Osteoporosis and Cancer, in references)
What is Osteoporosis?
“Osteoporosis is a disease that causes bones to thin and weaken. It can cause bones to easily break. A risk factor is anything that increases your chances for a disease. Risk factors for osteoporosis include being female, family history, advanced age, low body weight, sedentary lifestyle choices, and low calcium and vitamin D levels. More than 10 million Americans have osteoporosis and as many as 40 million more have low bone mass and are at high risk of developing the disease.” (refer to the first reference at the end of this post)
“People undergoing cancer treatment are more at risk for osteoporosis. “Treatments including radiation, chemotherapy, and medications may pose a bone health risk,” says Richard Theriault, DO, MBA, professor, Department of Breast Medical Oncology, Division of Cancer Medicine, The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, Houston. “Radiation may have direct toxic effects on bone but remains a mainstay of treatment for bone metastases and local therapy post primary breast surgery. Radiation techniques have been designed to minimize risks to bone health,” he says. (see – first reference)
Chemotherapy, says Dr. Theriault, has a major effect on bone health by shutting down the ovaries and causing early menopause in premenopausal women. “This results in a hypoestrogen state with negative impact on bone density.” Further, Dr. Theriault explains that some medications, such as steroids, used to prevent nausea and vomiting may also have a negative impact on bone health. “In postmenopausal women, aromatase inhibitor agents used for adjuvant therapy to reduce the risks of cancer recurrence result in profound hypoestrogen states and thereby increase risks of osteopenia/osteoporosis and fractures,” Dr. Theriault says.” (see – first reference)
Be Proactive: How to Enhance Your Bone Health and Reduce The Risk of Osteoporosis
There are some positive and proactive things that everyone, including cancer patients and survivors can do to improve bone health. All of the following are within your control and are important to focus on and try to incorporate into your lifestyle.
In addition to foods rich in calcium and vitamin D, there are other supplements and nutrients that the body needs to increase bone formation and strength. These include but are not limited to: Magnesium, Vitamin K, Collagen, Essential minerals, and according to some sources progesterone (preferably bio-identical). To learn more, visit: Good For Your Bones Foods.
Exercise can build bone strength.
Vital at every age for healthy bones, exercise is important for treating and preventing osteoporosis. Not only does exercise improve your bone health, it also increases muscle strength, coordination, and balance, and it leads to better overall health. Better balance helps to prevent falls and related fractures.
Bone is living tissue and responds to exercise by becoming stronger. There are two types of osteoporosis exercises that are important for building and maintaining bone density: weight-bearing and muscle-strengthening exercises. Some examples of weight-bearing exercises include weight training, walking, hiking, jogging, climbing stairs, tennis, jumping and dancing. Resistance exercises include free weights, weight machines and elastic bands. Yoga and Pilates are excellent exercises for balance, strength and flexibility (accommodations should be made in certain yoga and pilates movements if you have already been diagnosed with osteoporosis so be sure to work with an educated instructor). Exercise should be individually tailored to your needs and capabilities. Overall, most people should aim to exercise for 30 to 40 minutes three to four times each week, with some weight-bearing and resistance exercises included in the program. Studies have shown people with a sedentary lifestyle are more likely to have a hip fracture than those who are more active. Weight-bearing exercises force your body to resist gravity and stimulate cells in the body that make new bone. Strength training causes the muscles to pull on the bone.
The Flamingo Study: Balancing on one leg 3x per day can help prevent falls.
Numerous studies have proven that people with better posture, better balance, and greater muscle power are less likely to fall and are therefore less likely to be injured or experience a fracture. An interesting study performed in Japan, sometimes referred to as the “Flamingo Study” showed that standing on 1 foot to balance 3 times per day for 1 minute each (6 minutes in total – 3 times on each foot for 1 minute each per day) was effective in helping improve balance and prevent falls. This is called the unipedal balance exercise and the study is entitled: Effects of unipedal standing balance exercise on the prevention of falls and hip fracture among clinically defined high-risk elderly individuals: a randomized controlled trial. According to the principal author, K. Sakamoto, “Unipedal standing captures the 2.75 times weight load to the femoral head. Unipedal standing for one minute is equivalent to the amount of integral load gained through walking for approximately 53 minutes. Unipedal standing balance exercise in one minute 3 times per one day is useful to create the proximal femoral bone density and to prevent falls.” This “Dynamic Flamingo Therapy” seems like an obvious exercise for anyone to do because the benefits are significant, it is easy to do, it doesn’t take much time, and it is free! There is no downside to trying it daily. You can stand on one foot when you are brushing your teeth or washing dishes. Create a reminder for yourself, such as placing an hourglass or egg timer near your sinks.
Avoid Tobacco Products
Several research studies have identified smoking as a risk factor for osteoporosis and bone fracture. To learn more read this WebMD article about: The Effects of Smoking on Bone Health
Limit Alcohol Consumption
High levels of cortisol seen in people with alcoholism can decrease bone formation and increase bone breakdown. Chronic alcohol consumption also increases parathyroid hormone, which leaches calcium from the bone, she says. Also, excess alcohol kills osteoblasts, the bone-making cells. See more in this WebMD article about: The Effects of Alcohol on Bone Health
Although prescription pharmaceuticals are outside the scope of this article, it is important to mention that there are a number of drugs that are frequently prescribed to help rebuild bones. Many women have refused treatment of these drugs due to reports of debilitating side effects such as osteonecrosis of the jaw (rotted jawbones) and atypical femoral fractures (snapped thigh bones). Please click here to read: “Fearing Drugs’ Rare Side Effects, Millions Take Their Chances With Osteoporosis” an informative article from the NY Times about this topic. A more scientific review of bisphosphonate drugs can be found in this article from the Mayo Clinic Proceedings: Adverse Effects of Bisphosphonates: Implications for Osteoporosis Management
Forewarned is Forearmed
If you are beginning cancer treatment, be sure to ask about how the recommended treatment protocol will affect your bones. If you know that you are at risk for developing osteopenia or osteoporosis you can take the positive and proactive steps outlined above. If you are diagnosed with osteopenia or osteoporosis it is important to consult with your medical professionals to evaluate all the options and create a program that you are comfortable with. Consider a multifaceted approach to bone health including lifestyle modification, exercise and possibly natural supplements and/or pharmaceutical products.
National Comprehensive Cancer Treatment (www.nccn.org) – Bone Health
Safirstein Research – Osteoporosis
Fearing Drugs’ Rare Side Effects, Millions Take Their Chances With Osteoporosis
Adverse Effects of Bisphosphonates: Implications for Osteoporosis Management
Atypical femoral fractures and bisphosphonate use: current evidence and clinical implications
NIH Osteoporosis and Related Bone Diseases National Resource Center
International Osteoporosis Foundation Exercise Guidelines
Effects of unipedal standing balance exercise on the prevention of falls and hip fracture among clinically defined high-risk elderly individuals: a randomized controlled trial.
The Effects of Smoking on Bone Health
The Effects of Alcohol on Bone Health
Good For Your Bones Foods
Osteoporosis and Cancer
To read about one patient’s experience with Bone Health and Cancer please read “I Am Furious: Learn From My Cancer Story About Why You Must Become Your Own Medical Advocate” by Pat Wetzel, Founder of the Anti-Cancer Club.
About the author:
Margot Malin is the Founder and CEO of Lots To Live For, Inc. After receiving her MBA from The Wharton School, she joined a major New York City investment management firm as a managing director and equity portfolio manager. She enjoyed analyzing companies and industries, investing, and earning competitive returns for her clients for almost twenty years. Lots To Live For was founded in tribute to her mother and grandmother who both fought courageous battles against cancer. Becoming involved in the cancer community allows her to give back to people in need by helping them through a difficult time in their lives. Margot enjoys mentoring other entrepreneurs and is also an angel investor.