Protecting Your Bones After Breast Cancer Treatment

Health Professional

While every woman should be on her guard against the onset of osteoporosis, those who have had breast cancer may be at special risk. A number of chemotherapy regimens and other medications used to combat the cancer can result in premature bone loss, which is possibly even aggravated by the cancer experience itself. Here are some ways you can help keep your bones as healthy as possible:

Calcium and Vitamin D. It is vital to ensure an adequate daily intake of both calcium, which makes bone strong, and Vitamin D, which aids the body in the absorption of calcium. In fact, some studies have indicated that among Vitamin D's various health benefits is a decreased risk of cancer, including breast cancer. The National Osteoporosis Foundation now recommends that adult women consume 1000 mg of calcium per day through age 50, and 1200 per day from age 51 onward. The latest research is also attributing increased importance to the role of Vitamin D in preventing osteoporosis. While the organization used to recommend adults take 400-800 IU daily, it recently increased its advised level of Vitamin D intake to 800-1000 IU for those over age 50.

When possible, a varied and healthful diet may be the best way to consume recommended these nutrients. Calcium is found in dairy products and leafy green vegetables; Vitamin D is in saltwater fish (such as salmon), egg yolks and beef liver. Milk and some fortified juices can offer great options to get both calcium and Vitamin D at once; check the label carefully to see just how much you're getting. However, if you're not sure you're consuming enough of these foods, taking a daily supplement of calcium and/or Vitamin D (both are often available together in one pill) may be best to ensure you take the right amount.

One special consideration for women who have had breast cancer, however, is that the presence of genistein, an isoflavone found in soy, could stimulate the growth of estrogen receptive tumors and may interfere with tamoxifen. So despite its bone-boosting potential, stay away from extracted soy powders and soy supplements (some calcium pills, for example, come with soy). While soy products that aren't as concentrated seem to be safer, such as calcium-fortified soy milk, you may prefer other ways to consume your nutrients if you have had breast cancer.

Weight-bearing exercise. Exercise can help ward off brittle bones, but it must be weight-bearing to do so. That means swimming and bicycling, while good for your overall fitness, will do little to help maintain your bone density. On the other hand, walking, aerobics, and even weightlifting are great ways to strengthen your skeleton. You should check with a physician before beginning any exercise program.

Cut out the bad stuff. As a breast cancer survivor, you probably already know to avoid smoking and excessive drinking. But in addition to being a cancer liability, each of these unhealthy habits is considered to be detrimental to bone health as well. For the sake of your entire body, quit smoking entirely if you smoke and consume alcoholic beverages only in moderation.

Monitor your bone health. The American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) considers postmenopausal women taking aromatase inhibitors and women with menopause resulting from cancer therapy to be at high risk of osteoporosis. It recommends those groups, and women with other risk factors, undergo annual bone density scans to track potential bone loss. Based on the results, your physician can discuss with you if you should take further action, such as considering prescription medication.