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Bisphosphonates and cancer

Bisphosphonates are drugs that help prevent or slow down bone thinning (osteoporosis). They can help to treat some types of cancer that cause bone damage.

You might hear bisphosphonates called bone hardening or bone strengthening treatment. They are also a treatment for high levels of calcium in your blood.

Doctors also use a drug called denosumab as a bone targeted treatment. It’s a type of targeted therapy called a monoclonal antibody.

Cancers that can affect bones

Most cancers that affect bones are ones that have started in another part of the body and have spread to the bone (secondary bone cancer). The most common types are breast cancer, prostate cancer and lung cancer.

Myeloma develops from cells in the bone marrow called plasma cells. Bone marrow is the spongy tissue found inside the inner part of some of our large bones.

Some types of cancer treatment can also affect the bones making them weaker, this includes chemotherapy and hormone therapies.

How cancer affects bones

Cancers that spread to the bones damage the bones as they grow. The cancer cells that have spread into the bones also release proteins that interfere with the normal bone shaping process. These proteins are cytokines and growth factors. 

The proteins stimulate the cells that break down bone (osteoclasts) and make them overactive. So, bone is destroyed faster than it's rebuilt.

This means your bones can become thinner and weaker, causing:

  • pain in the affected bone
  • high calcium levels in the blood
  • an increased risk of breaks (fractures)

Calcium is normally stored in the bones and the breakdown of bone cells releases more calcium than usual into the blood.

Doctors call a high level of calcium in the blood hypercalcaemia. Symptoms of hypercalcaemia include:

  • feeling thirsty
  • constipation
  • feeling sick
  • feeling drowsy
  • abdominal pain
  • bone pain

Bisphosphonate treatment can stop some types of cancer from spreading into the bone for some people. Studies have also shown that bisphosphonates can help some people with breast cancer and myeloma to live longer.

Bisphosphonates might also help to:

  • prevent or control bone thinning (osteoporosis)
  • reduce the risk of bones breaking
  • reduce the level of calcium in your blood
  • reduce pain

Types of bisphosphonate

There are several different types of bisphosphonate, including:

  • disodium pamidronate (Aredia)
  • ibandronic acid or ibandronate (Bondronat)
  • sodium clodronate (Bonefos, Clasteon, Loron)
  • zoledronic acid or zoledronate (Zometa)

You can have sodium clodronate as tablets or capsules. You have ibandronic acid as a drip into your bloodstream (infusion) or as tablets. And you have zoledronic acid and disodium pamidronate as a drip into your bloodstream.

Most of the research so far has looked at using bisphosphonates in secondary breast cancer, secondary prostate cancer and myeloma. The type of bisphosphonate your doctor prescribes for you will depend on the type of cancer you have. You will have one that works for your type of cancer.

There might sometimes be a choice of bisphosphonates for your type of cancer. Your doctor will give you the bisphosphonate best suited to your medical and practical needs. For example, you might prefer to take a bisphosphonate tablet at home rather than travel to hospital every month for treatment by drip.

You might have bisphosphonate treatment if you have myeloma to:

  • slow down or prevent bone disease
  • treat the symptoms of myeloma such as bone pain or high levels of calcium
  • treat myeloma if you have bone damage

This is usually:

  • zoledronic acid
  • disodium pamidronate, if you can’t have zoledronic acid for some reason
  • sodium clodronate, if you can’t have zoledronic acid or disodium pamidronate for some reason

You might have bisphosphonate treatment if you’re having hormone therapy and have osteoporosis (thinning of the bones). If you can’t have bisphosphonates for any reason you might have denosumab.

Bisphosphonates are not recommended to try and prevent prostate cancer that hasn’t spread, spreading to the bone.

Advanced prostate cancer

You might have bisphosphonate treatment if you have advanced cancer and hormone treatment is no longer controlling your cancer. This aims to prevent or reduce problems with your bones. You are likely to have zoledronic acid.

You might have bisphosphonates as tablets or an injection into the vein for pain relief in one of the following situations:

  • you have advanced cancer and hormone treatment is no longer controlling the cancer
  • other treatments, including painkillers and radiotherapy, have not helped your pain enough

For some women, bisphosphonate treatment can help reduce the risk of their breast cancer spreading to the bones. And improve some women’s chance of surviving their cancer.

You might have bisphosphonate treatment alongside your cancer treatment if:

  • you have early and locally advanced breast cancer, with cancer in the nearby lymph nodes
  • and you are postmenopausal

Or you might have this treatment if all of the following apply:

  • have locally advanced breast cancer, which isn’t in the nearby lymph nodes
  • are postmenopausal
  • are at high risk of your cancer coming back after treatment

For these women, the bisphosphonates recommended are:

  • zoledronic acid into a vein, usually every 6 months given at the same time as chemotherapy, for 3 years
  • sodium clodronate, as a tablet for 3 years – if you can’t have zoledronic acid for some reason

You might also have bisphosphonates if you:

  • have breast cancer that has spread to the bones, to try and prevent any bone problems and reduce pain
  • have, or are at high risk of, bone thinning (osteoporosis)

Clinical trials

You can find a clinical trial looking at bisphosphonates and cancer on our clinical trials database. Click on the ‘recruiting’, ‘closed’ and ‘results’ tabs to make sure you see all the trials.

Last reviewed: 
27 Nov 2019
  • Early breast cancer (preventing recurrence and improving survival): adjuvant bisphosphonates

    National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (NICE), July 2017

  • The role of bisphosphonates or denosumab in light of the availability of new therapies for prostate cancer

    F Saad and others

    Cancer Treatment Reviews, 2018. Volume 68

  • Optimal use of bisphosphonates in patients with multiple myeloma

    E Terpos, G D Roodman and M A Dimopoulos

    Blood, 2013. Volume 121

  • Bone health in cancer patients: ESMO Clinical Practice Guidelines

    R Coleman and others, 2014

    Annals of Oncology, 2014. Volume 25, Supplement 3

  • Prostate cancer: diagnosis and management

    National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (NICE), 2019

  • Early and locally advanced breast cancer: diagnosis and management

    National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), 2018

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