Improve bone health before, during and after cancer treatment

Healthy bones are the foundation of healthy bodies. Bone growth and loss are natural processes that occur as the body ages and changes; however, it is never too late to improve bone health. One easy way to do this is to eat a diet rich in calcium, vitamin D, protein and magnesium.

Calcium is one of the most important nutrients for bone health. The body does not produce calcium on its own. Instead, it comes from dietary sources (most effective) or calcium supplements. Rich sources of dietary calcium include dairy foods, such as milk, cheese and yogurt as well as non-dairy foods such as nuts, seeds, beans, soy, vegetables (leafy greens, rhubarb, artichoke, squash) and seafood.

Vitamin D helps the body to absorb calcium. The body produces vitamin D when sunlight turns a chemical in the skin into vitamin D3, which the body then transforms into an active form of vitamin D. However, it is important to be very careful about sun exposure and to always apply sunscreen to reduce the risk of skin cancer. It is possible to get vitamin D from some foods, but only a few, like oily fish and mushrooms exposed to UV light. Additional sources of vitamin D include fortified milk, yogurt and orange juice.

Protein helps to build and repair bones. Protein makes up to 50% of bone volume and approximately one-third of its mass. Adequate protein intake plays an important role in bone formation. Protein sources such as beans, lentils, eggs, dairy products, fish, tofu, nuts and seeds should be included in each meal daily.

Magnesium is a mineral that plays an important role in maintaining healthy bones. Magnesium contributes to increased bone density and helps prevent the onset of osteoporosis. Most people do not get enough magnesium in their diets, especially if they consume large amounts of processed foods from which much of the magnesium is removed. Dietary sources that are rich in magnesium include nuts (almonds, cashews, Brazil), seeds (sunflower, sesame, pumpkin), legumes, fish, beans, whole grains and dark green vegetables.

All adults should be concerned about bone health, which is especially important for cancer patients and survivors. Some cancer treatments can cause bones to become more thin and fragile. Patients with breast, ovarian or prostate cancer are at higher risk for osteoporosis. They often receive treatments to reduce the hormones that help their cancer grow. However, these hormones also control how fast the osteoblasts (new bone formation) and osteoclasts (aged bone resorption) work. When these cells slow down, they build new bone more slowly, resulting in bone loss. It is important for patients who are currently undergoing treatment or who have completed treatment to do things to help maintain bone density.

Here are some ways to maintain bone density:
  • Quit smoking. Smoking makes bone loss happen much faster. For help with quitting smoking, speak with a provider about the smoking and tobacco cessation programs offered at Northside Hospital.
  • Limit alcohol consumption. Alcohol affects the cells that build new bones. If consuming alcohol, limit consumption to one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men.
  • Exercise daily. The best activities for healthy bones include strength training (weightlifting, exercises using resistance bands), posture exercises (standing, sitting with good posture, yoga), balance training (Tai Chi, dancing and walking) and aerobic exercises.
  • Eat a diet rich in calcium, vitamin D, protein and magnesium.

Bone growth and loss will happen naturally as the body ages, and as it adapts to various treatments and therapies. By tackling this with the proactive approach of a balanced diet (high in calcium, vitamin D, protein, and magnesium) and daily movement, one can help to both increase bone health and decrease the risk for osteoporosis and other bone-related health issues.


  • Taxel P, et al. "Cancer Treatment–Induced Bone Loss in Women With Breast Cancer and Men With Prostate Cancer." J Endocrine Soc. 2018;2:574-588. doi: 10.1210/js.2018-00052.
  • Cancer Support Community. Bone Health for Cancer Survivors. December 2018.
  • Castiglioni S, et al. "Magnesium and osteoporosis: current state of knowledge and future research directions." Nutrients2013 Jul 31;5(8):3022-33. doi: 10.3390/nu5083022.


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Featured Provider

Meena Jayabalan, MS, RDN, CSO, LD picture

Meena Jayabalan, MS, RDN, CSO, LD

Specialties: Nutrition Services

Meena Jayabalan is a clinical dietitian at Northside Hospital.

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