It’s no secret that cancer treatment takes an emotional and physical toll on patients, and leaves cancer survivors dealing with some long-term side effects. According to the American Cancer Society, the goals of cancer treatment include shrinking cancerous tumors to make them easier to remove surgically, killing cancer cells in the body, and/or controlling cancer so it does not grow and spread. Chemotherapy, steroid medications, and hormonal therapies used to achieve these goals sometimes have unwelcome side effects, such as accelerated bone loss, potentially leading to osteopenia and/or osteoporosis.
What is Osteoporosis?
Osteoporosis, the most common type of bone disorder, occurs when the body breaks down more bone tissue than it creates. This causes the bones to become thin and develop holes that make them weak, brittle, and more likely to break. Osteoporosis may occur as a result of aging, genetics, long-term inactivity, and excess smoking and alcohol use. Additionally, osteoporosis can be caused by:
- Bone cancer
- Certain types of cancers including multiple myeloma and breast, lung, ovarian, prostate, and testicular cancers
Cancer Treatments Cause Diminished Bone Health
Certain types of treatments for cancer have been known to increase the risk of osteoporosis in cancer survivors. These treatments include:
- Aromatase inhibitors including Arimidex, Femara, and Aromasin
- Certain chemotherapy drugs
- Immunosuppressive medications that slow or stop the immune system, including methotrexate
- Androgen-deprivation therapy (ADT) that reduces hormones levels
- Steroid medications including prednisone and cortisone
Symptoms of Osteoporosis After Cancer Treatment
Because your cancer treatment may have increased your risk of developing osteoporosis, it is important to know the signs of bone loss and talk with your doctors if you experience them. Symptoms of bone loss include:
- Experiencing back and/or joint pain or stiffness
- Experiencing jaw pain, swelling, and/or infection
- Becoming shorter over time
- Developing a stooped posture or curved upper back
- Breaking a bone after a minor injury or fall
How to Keep Your Bones Healthy After Cancer Treatment
As a cancer survivor, if you have not yet developed osteoporosis, you can lower your risk of developing it in the future by:
- Avoiding tobacco
- Eating foods rich in calcium and vitamin D
- Staying physically active
- Limiting alcohol consumption
- Seeing your doctor as recommended
If you have developed osteoporosis as a result of your cancer treatments, you should also follow the advice above. In addition, your doctor may prescribe prescription medications that block cells that destroy bones, reduce new bone damage, and promote healing. Your doctor may also instruct you to take calcium and vitamin D supplements (recommended dosages vary so it’s important to talk to your doctor before taking any supplements.)
Getting regular exercise and maintaining a healthy weight are especially important if you already have osteoporosis. Regular exercise triggers the body to create new bone cells; being underweight can contribute to bone loss. Additionally, make sure to take steps to reduce your risk of tripping and falling: Wear shoes that fit well, declutter your living space, have your vision checked regularly and wear corrective lenses if needed, and consider exercises to improve your balance.
Osteoporosis is a disease that develops over time and cannot be seen or felt. Knowing that you are at increased risk of developing bone problems, talk to your doctor about whether you should have periodic bone mineral density tests. This quick, easy test measures the thickness of your bones and can determine if you have normal bones mass, low bone mass (Osteopenia), or osteoporosis.