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Breast Cancer Health Center

Breast Cancer and Osteoporosis

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The Impact of Breast Cancer

The National Cancer Institute reports that 1 in 8 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.

While the exact cause of breast cancer is not known, the risk of developing it increases with age. The risk is particularly high in women over the age of 60. 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.

Facts About Osteoporosis

Osteoporosis is a condition in which the bones become less dense and more likely to fracture. Fractures from osteoporosis can result in significant pain and disability. It is a major health threat for an estimated 44 million Americans, 68 percent of whom are women.

Risk factors for developing osteoporosis include:

  • being thin or having a small frame
  • having a family history of the disease
  • for women, being postmenopausal, having an early menopause, or not having menstrual periods (amenorrhea)
  • using certain medications, such as glucocorticoids
  • not getting enough calcium
  • not getting enough physical activity
  • smoking
  • drinking too much alcohol.

Osteoporosis is a silent disease that can often be prevented. However, if undetected, it can progress for many years without symptoms until a fracture occurs. It has been called “a pediatric disease with geriatric consequences” because building healthy bones in one’s youth is important to help prevent osteoporosis and fractures later in life.

The Breast Cancer – Osteoporosis Link

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 prior to their cancer treatment tend to go through menopause earlier than those who have not had the disease.

Studies also suggest that chemotherapy 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.

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