Breastfeeding is undoubtedly one of the most joyous aspects of motherhood. Besides being good for the baby, breastfeeding also has a direct impact on the health of a woman. One such benefit is the prevention of breast cancer. It has long been said, anecdotally, that breastfeeding reduces the risk of breast cancer. But does it?
Also, can women who have breast cancer breastfeed their babies? Here is a MomJunction post with all the information you need about breastfeeding and breast cancer.
Does Breastfeeding Help Prevent Breast Cancer?
Yes. Breastfeeding can help minimize a woman’s risk of breast cancer. Research by the World Health Organization and the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that breastfeeding helps reduce the risk of breast cancer (1) (2).
- Breastfeeding is always good, irrespective of the duration: Studies have shown that women who breastfeed even for a short duration lower their risk of pre-menopausal and postmenopausal breast cancer by 25% (3). But the longer you breastfeed, the more you are going to enjoy the benefits. Research says that women who breastfeed their babies for two years reduce the risk of breast cancer by 50% (4).
- Breast milk limits the abnormal behavior of breast cells: Experts state that when the body produces milk, the risk of abnormal behavior of the breast cells goes down (5).
- Breastfeeding protects when you have more children: If you have more kids, you tend to breastfeed more and reduce the risk of breast cancer. But women who have three or more children but do not breastfeed can be at a higher risk of developing estrogen receptor-negative and progesterone receptor-negative breast cancer (6).
- Reduced risk even for those with family history: Studies have shown that women with a family history of breast cancer are 59% less likely to develop cancer if they breastfed their babies (7).
- Breastfeeding protects against aggressive forms of cancer: Some types of breast cancers are more persistent than others. Breastfeeding provides protection against aggressive forms of cancers like basal-like, triple-negative, and BRCA1 mutation breast cancers (8).
There are several documented benefits of breastfeeding against cancer. But there is also the question of whether a woman can breastfeed if she already has breast cancer?
Can A Mother Breastfeed With Breast Cancer?
The ability to breastfeed with breast cancer entirely depends on the type of cancer, the extent of it, and the nature of your treatment of it. Here are the essential points to remember about breastfeeding with breast cancer:
- It is not safe to breastfeed during chemotherapy: A lot of chemotherapy drugs can find their way into the breast milk and affect the baby’s health. Therefore, it is not advisable to breastfeed when on chemotherapy (9). Mothers undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer can choose to wean their baby before they begin the therapy. Another option is to express and discard milk during chemotherapy. It keeps your breasts stimulated enough to produce milk later. You can talk to your doctor to find out when it is safe to breastfeed after the treatment.
- Breastfeeding may be possible in case of radiation therapy: You may be able to breastfeed the baby if you are undergoing only radiation therapy. However, your doctor will have to take the final call on this.
- Do not breastfeed before or after surgery: If surgery is the ideal treatment option for breast cancer, then you will have to stop breastfeeding before surgery to reduce the flow of blood to the breasts. Reduced milk flow decreases the risk of infection and prevents accumulation of breast milk at the time of the surgery.
Talk to the doctor about the right time to resume breastfeeding after surgery, to prevent passing any drugs or medications, which you may have been on for the procedure, via breastmilk.
- Type of surgery determines the ability to breastfeed: A double mastectomy or removal of both breast tissues makes it impossible for you to breastfeed again. However, single mastectomy leaves you with one healthy breast for feeding the child. Another procedure is a lumpectomy that involves removal of a small section of cancerous tissue from the breast.
It can leave a few milk ducts intact to produce breast milk. The quantity of milk may not be sufficient, and you may have to substitute the baby’s diet with formula. Nevertheless, you may still be able to breastfeed even after lumpectomy.
Breastfeeding is necessary for the baby’s health and yours. If you are healthy, opt for breastfeeding to keep cancer away. If you’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer after the conceiving or the birth of your baby, follow the precautions specified by the doctor to keep yourself and the baby safe.
Have some thoughts about breastfeeding and breast cancer? Do share with us in the comment section below.
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