Losing Balance After Breast Cancer

Risk of falling is a side effect from breast cancer chemotherapy

(RxWiki News) Survivors of breast cancer may find it hard to stand strong as a result of the therapies they endured while fighting the cancer, according to new research.

In a study involving post-menopausal breast cancer survivors, Kerri M. Winters-Stone, Ph.D., Associate Professor and Associate Scientist at Oregon Health and Science University, and colleagues found that breast cancer survivors had an increased risk of falling, compared to their peers.

After asking the women if they had fallen within the past year, and then proceeding to record their falls throughout a six-month period, the researchers found that 58 percent of breast cancer survivors had fallen within the prior year. Nearly half of the participants fell over the 6-month course of the study. In contrast, adults over the age of 65 without a history of breast cancer have an annual fall rate between 25 to 30 percent.

In 59 of the participants, researchers measured various neuromuscular and balance characteristics associated with falls. They found that an offset balance was the only thing that differentiated between breast cancer survivors who fell and those who did not. The study's results suggest that the balance problems may have been associated with changes in the vestibular system (the system associated with balance and spacial orientation) as a result of chemotherapy treatment.

In the opinion of Winters-Stone, there is insufficient research on falls among breast cancer survivors. The topic deserves more attention, she says, especially in light of the increase in fractures following breast cancer treatment. Winters-Stone concludes that her team's findings add to a growing body of research that shows that breast cancer survivors face an increased risk of falling. Furthermore, her study shows that the vestibular system plays a strong role in the relationship between breast cancer treatment and falls.

Breast cancer is the second most common cancer among women in the United States. In 2007, nearly 203,000 women were diagnosed with breast cancer in the United States. More than 40,000 women died of breast cancer in the same year.

There are a variety of therapies for breast cancer, including surgery (e.g. lumpectomy, mastectomy, lymph node dissection), chemotherapy, radiation therapy, hormonal therapy, and targeted therapy (e.g. Herceptin®). 

The study by Winters-Stone and colleagues will appear in the April issue of Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation.

Review Date: 
March 7, 2011