Maintaining Bone Health During and After Chemotherapy
One long-term effect of chemotherapy on the body is the effect it can have on bone density. People who undergo this treatment for certain cancers—including leukemia and lymphoma, as well as breast cancer—have an increased risk of developing osteoporosis later in life, for a variety of reasons relating to the treatment and its side effects. Paying special attention to bone health, and maintaining bone density, is of particular important both in the short term and the long term, to keep bones healthy and strong throughout life.
Chemotherapy and Bone Health
Everyone loses bone mass as they age, but for some people the loss of bone mass is more severe, typically due to inadequate dietary intake of minerals like calcium and magnesium, which are essential for bone formation. People with severely low bone density develop osteoporosis, a disease characterized by weak and brittle bones, and a high risk of bone fractures and breakages.
Women who undergo certain types of chemotherapy have an increased risk of losing significant amounts of bone mass, for several reasons. One is that some chemotherapy drugs directly decrease the body’s calcium levels. In other cases, steroid treatments interfere with bone formation processes in the bone marrow. Another factor is that many women experience early menopause as a long-term consequence of chemotherapy; therefore osteoporosis may develop in some women at a relatively young age, because the likelihood of developing osteoporosis increases after menopause.
Exercising for Bone Health
Weight-bearing exercises like walking, running, and dancing are generally considered to be the best exercises for maintaining bone density, but exercises like yoga can provide a significant benefit too. Even though yoga isn’t considered a weight-bearing exercise, it improves muscle strength and flexibility, as well as balance and posture, and all of these things help support and stabilize the body, and make falls less likely. As well as this, improved general health and body strength makes weight-bearing exercise easier and more effective. Therefore, even if weight-bearing exercise isn’t always possible, gentler forms of movement like yoga still provide important benefits that help maintain bone health and density.
Diet and Supplements for Maintaining Bone Health
Conventional wisdom states that dairy products are the best way to get essential minerals like calcium, which is essential for bone health and maintaining bone density in the long term. This, of course, isn’t an option for vegans, and in fact there are many excellent vegan sources of all the nutrients that bones need to stay healthy, including magnesium, potassium, and vitamin K, in addition to calcium.
All three minerals—calcium, potassium, and magnesium—can be obtained from many plant sources. Green leafy vegetables are high in potassium and calcium, as are many varieties of beans, legumes, and nuts. Bananas are an excellent source of potassium, and brown rice, nuts (almonds in particular), oats, and beans all contain magnesium. Aim for 1000-1300 mg of calcium, 400 mg of magnesium, and 4,700 mg of potassium daily. Vitamin K is an easy nutrient for vegans, as it’s present in virtually all plants, but vitamin D is more difficult, as almost all dietary sources of this vitamin are animal-based. Mushrooms contain small amounts of vitamin D; apart from this, sun exposure and supplements are the best sources.
There are plenty of vegan supplements available, in the event that you decide you need some extra help in getting all the vitamins and minerals you need. When choosing supplements, it’s important to make sure you’re getting them in the right combination. In the case of calcium supplements, for example, one that also includes vitamin D is typically more effective, because the body needs it to absorb and use the calcium. However, many sources of vitamin D are not vegan so it’s typically better to choose separate supplements, and take them at the same time to get the same effect.
Bone Density Tests
The Surgeon General suggests that all women over 65 should have a bone density test to screen for osteoporosis, and also that women under 65 should have the test if they have an increase risk of developing the disease. The test measures bone density and is used to diagnose of osteoporosis; it can also predict whether a woman might develop the disease in the future, so it can be useful for prevention purposes too.
Andrew Weil. “Supplements for Bone and Joints.” Accessed May 3, 2014. Dietary supplements.
Kwikmed. “Complete Video Guide to Osteoporosis and Bone Health.” Accessed May 6, 2014. Science and research.
NIH Osteoporosis and Related Bone Diseases National Resource Center. “What Breast Cancer Survivors Need to Know about Osteoporosis.” Accessed May 6, 2014. Osteoporosis after breast cancer.
University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. “Possible Side Effects of Cancer Treatment.” Accessed May 6, 2014. How chemotherapy affects bones.
The Surgeon General. “Bone Health and Osteoporosis.” Accessed May 6, 2014. Bone density testing.
The Synergy Company. “Bone Renewal.” Accessed May 3, 2014. Dietary supplements for bones.