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Reversing Bone Loss after Treatment

Kerri Winters-Stone, PhDBuilding your bones through a targeted physical activity program can help counter the effects of chemotherapy and endocrine therapy in breast and prostate cancer survivors.

If you're a breast or prostate cancer survivor, you may face an increased risk of osteoporosis (bone loss). But researchers are finding that survivors benefit from physical activity programs tailored for people who have completed or are undergoing treatment for these cancers.

Causes of Bone Loss

Some hormones protect us against bone loss. When these hormones are blocked through treatment, bones become less dense and are more likely to break. Older patients who already have weakened bones may have an even higher risk for osteoporosis.

Kerri Winters-Stone, PhD, Associate Professor at Oregon Health & Science University, studies bone health in breast and prostate cancer survivors. She says that drugs called aromatase inhibitors, which help block the growth of breast tumors by lowering estrogen levels in the body, are particularly associated with significant bone loss.

Men treated for prostate cancer with androgen-deprivation therapy also are at increased risk of osteoporosis.

Carefully Rebuilding Bones

Bone is living tissue. Impact during physical activities like jogging, dancing and tennis, as well as load-bearing during weight lifting, makes bones stronger. But cancer patients need to start gradually to avoid injury. Researchers are helping to determine how cancer patients can do so safely.

Kathleen Wolin, ScDWomen who have gone through breast cancer surgery or a lumpectomy may be vulnerable to arm and shoulder injury, points out Kathleen Wolin, ScD, Associate Professor in the Department of Public Health Sciences at Loyola University-Chicago. "We recommend they start with a supervised program, so they aren't moving their shoulder in an incorrect way that could increase their risk of harm," she says.

For prostate cancer survivors who want to start resistance training to build bone and strengthen muscles, the key is "starting low and progressing slow, Dr. Wolin adds. If you have done a lot of weight training before, it's probably OK to do it again on your own. But if you haven't tried it before, or haven't lifted weights since college, start with a supervised program so you are sure you're using the right amount of weight.

Replacing Bone through Exercise

Dr. Winters-Stone has found that women who have undergone breast cancer chemotherapy can benefit from exercise in the same way as women who have not. She is studying whether a combination of exercises such as squats, lunges and rowing can help strengthen bone in these survivors.

Her studies have shown that older postmenopausal breast cancer survivors who strength- and jump-train for one year can stop bone loss at the spine and hip. More good news is that survivors whose treatment caused early menopause can actually build bone back if they participate in the same training program.

Cancer survivors looking to start a bone-building exercise program should consult with a fitness professional who is a certified by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) and American Cancer Society (ACS). Or seek someone qualified to train older adults or people who have medical issues.

Published on May 16, 2013

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