Fracture risk in cancer survivors has been underestimated

3 minute read

Cancer survivorship needs to be factored into fracture risk assessment tools.

Many more cancers confer an increased fracture risk in their survivors than previously thought, new research shows. 

The UK study, analysing health records of over 3.5 million adults, 570,000 of whom had had cancer, found 15 cancers were associated with an increased risk of bone fractures in survivors.  

The greatest risk of major osteoporotic fracture was seen in patients with a history of multiple myeloma, followed by CNS, liver, prostate, and lung cancers. 

There was a moderate risk increase associated with a history of stomach, pancreas, breast and kidney cancers. Risk increases of less than 20% were seen with malignant melanoma, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, leukaemia, and oesophageal, colorectal, and cervical cancers, according to the 22 year study published in The Lancet Health Longevity

Previously, only multiple myeloma, prostate cancer, and breast cancer have been associated with bone health issues, but this research concluded that survivors of most types of cancer are at an increased risk of bone fracture.  

Interestingly, the study also found that the risk for bone fractures in cancer survivors was higher in males versus females, and that obesity only increased fracture risk in breast cancer survivors.  

For oesophageal, pancreas, lung and CNS cancers, the risk of fracture was higher for people who had not previously experienced a fracture, but the risk increased for survivors of cervical cancer who had had a previous fracture.  

Associate Professor Joel Rhee, head of General Practice at UNSW and chair of Cancer and Palliative Care for the RACGP, told TMR that the study findings were concerning. 

“This study really highlights the problem. The issue with bone health is obviously very important, and there are many risk factors that increase the risk of osteoporosis,” he said. 

Dr Rhee believes systemic guidance for bone health risk assessment is needed for clinicians. 

“I think the issue for GPs is probably the bottom line. We need guidance and more comprehensive tools that look at the whole person to help us in making that decision about bone health and the need for screening and treatment,” he said. 

“Ideally, there should be a way to calculate the risk using not just relative terms, but absolute terms of osteoporosis risk. There are calculators out there, but I don’t think cancer is one of the prominent [factors].” 

Dr Rhee says that the number of restrictions around Medicare funding for bone mineral density scans could be a barrier for having bone health discussions with patients as previous cancer was not an indication for a rebateable scan. “If a patient is below 70, there are only a limited number of conditions that will attract Medicare benefits.” 

Incidentally, the study also found cancer survivors were  more likely than non-cancer controls to have chronic kidney disease and inflammatory bowel disease. 

The Lancet Health Longevity, online February 6 

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