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. The most debated impact of breastfeeding on a woman’s health, however, is its role in breast cancer prevention. Many research studies point towards the possibility of cancer prevention due to breastfeeding. However, many studies contradict this hypothesis and specify that breastfeeding may not be effective in treating all subtypes of breast cancers (1). So, does breastfeeding really reduce the risk of breast cancer?
Here is a MomJunction post with all the information you need about breastfeeding and breast cancer.
Does Breastfeeding Help Prevent Breast Cancer?
The latest report on breast cancer from the American Institute for Cancer Research and a review report from the American Academy of Pediatrics state that breastfeeding reduces the risk of both pre and postmenopausal breast cancer (2). However, the positive outcomes of breastfeeding are said to depend on several other factors, such as duration of breastfeeding and breastfeeding patterns (3). Next, we tell you how breastfeeding may help fight breast cancer.
- Breastfeeding could reduce breast cancer risk: Studies have shown that women who breastfeed for a short duration could lower their risk of premenopausal and postmenopausal breast cancer by 25%, whereas in women who breastfeed for two or more years, it could reduce to 50% (4) (5). While these positive outcomes seem promising, more research is needed to substantiate them further. A study done in Iran found no significant relationship between breastfeeding and reduced risk of breast cancer (3).
- Breast milk has the potential to limit the abnormal behavior of cells: Experts state that when the body produces milk, the risk of abnormal behavior of the breast cells goes down (6). It happens by shedding of breast tissues, which help in the removal of cells with potential DNA damage (7).
- Breastfeeding might help when you have more children: If you have more kids, you tend to breastfeed more and could 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 (8).
- A probable decrease in risk 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 (9).
- Breastfeeding might protect against aggressive forms of cancer: An international meta-analysis study showed that breastfeeding is associated with a lower risk of developing hormone-receptor negative cancer. It is one of the most aggressive forms of cancer (10). Some other types of aggressive cancers that could be prevented with breastfeeding are basal-like, triple-negative, and BRCA1 mutation (11).
So, breastfeeding could aid in cancer prevention through various mechanisms that, however, are still being studied.
Can You Get Breast Cancer While Breastfeeding?
Though rare, a woman can get breast cancer while breastfeeding. Some human studies suggest that breastfeeding may offer greater protection against triple-negative, basal-like, and BRCA1 mutation-associated breast cancer. On the other hand, it could also be associated with increased risk for other types of breast cancer (1). As the breast undergoes major hormonal and physiological changes during pregnancy, lactation, and at the cessation of lactation, the risk of breast cancer seems to exist even, if rare.
You can go for a doctor’s consultation if you feel that there is something abnormal. Also, you may check for some general signs and symptoms of breast cancer, although these may or may not be present during breastfeeding (12).
- Lump in the breast (or underarm)
- Swelling or hardening of the breast
- Inflammation of breast skin
- Reddish, flaking skin in the nipple region or the breast
- Pain in the nipple area or any area of the breast
- Discharge other than breast milk, including blood, from the nipple
- Sudden changes in the size or shape of the breast
Also, these need not necessarily indicate breast cancer. If you observe any of the above symptoms, you could check with a doctor for a more accurate diagnosis and prevent complications.
Out of the symptoms mentioned above, one of the most common is a lump. A breast lump is often directly related to something like breast cancer, but it is not the case always. A lump in the breast could also be due to a few conditions, such as (13):
- Engorgement: Engorgement of breasts is caused by a build-up of milk, blood, and other fluids in the breast tissue (14). This is one of the most common causes of breast lumps during breastfeeding. These lumps can be worrisome at times, but they usually are common, especially while breastfeeding. Such lumps come and go; however, you could also experience a more persistent lump.
- Galactocele: A galactocele is a benign, milk-filled cyst. Such a cyst is formed in a section of milk duct when the milk gradually develops into a thicker, creamier consistency like butter or oil. The lump would feel like a smooth, round, moveable sac inside the breast. It is not painful but may be uncomfortable.
- Blocked duct: Special cells in the breast produce milk, which then travels into the milk duct. Many reasons, such as poor latching or a tight bra, could cause blockage in the duct that leads to engorgement, which, if not relieved, could lead to mastitis.
- Mastitis: This refers to inflammation of the breast, which happens when plugged ducts do not open to let the milk flow. This condition is painful, with flu-like symptoms. If not treated on time, it could develop into a full-blown infection requiring antibiotic treatment.
- Abscess: Abscess is often observed following mastitis. This condition is very painful as the lump swells up inside the breast and forms a pocket of pus. Due to this, the woman experiences high temperatures, indicating infection. The treatment aims to cure the abscess quickly and effectively to ensure minimal interruption of breastfeeding. Presently, abscesses are treated by needle aspiration (incision and drainage) (15).
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 the treatment. If your doctor gives the nod to breastfeed, here are some essential points to remember about breastfeeding with breast cancer:
- It is not safe to breastfeed during chemotherapy: Chemotherapy drugs can find their way into breast milk and affect the baby’s health (14). Mothers undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer can consult their doctor and choose to wean their babies before they begin the therapy. You may express and discard milk during chemotherapy. It keeps your breasts stimulated enough to produce milk later. Ask your doctor when it is safe to breastfeed after the treatment.
- Breastfeeding may be possible in the 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 you are having surgery 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 the 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 via breast milk.
- Type of surgery determines the ability to breastfeed: You may not be able to breastfeed after a double mastectomy or removal of both breast tissues. However, single mastectomy leaves you with one healthy breast for feeding the child. Another procedure is a lumpectomy that involves the 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 enough, and you may have to substitute the baby’s diet with formula. Nevertheless, you may still be able to breastfeed after lumpectomy.
Breastfeeding is necessary for the baby’s health and yours. If you are healthy, opt for breastfeeding to reduce the risk of some breast cancers. If you’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer after conceiving or the birth of your baby, follow the precautions specified by the doctor to keep yourself and the baby safe. Also, keep a check on your breast health while lactating, because breast cancer in lactating mothers cannot be denied outright. After all, precaution always is better than a cure.
Do you have any thoughts about breastfeeding and breast cancer? Do tell us about them in the comment section below.
2. Breast Cancer; American Institute for Cancer Research
3. Farahnaz Jafari-Mehdiabad et al.; Relationship between breastfeeding factors and breast cancer in women referred to Seyed Al-Shohada Hospital in Isfahan, Iran; National Center For Biotechnology Information (2016)
4. Jon Ahrendsen; Outcomes Of Breastfeeding Versus Formula Feeding; University of Washington
5. Breast cancer risk reduced 50 percent by breastfeeding two or more years; Yale University News
6. Breastfeeding Longer Seems to Help Protect Against Breast Cancer; Breast Cancer Organization
7. Breastfeeding lowers your breast cancer risk; MD Anderson Cancer Center, The University of Texas
8. Women Who Do Not Breastfeed At Increased Risk for Breast Cancer; Columbia University
9. Breastfeeding reduces risk of breast cancer in some women; UNC School of Medicine
10. Association between breastfeeding, reduced risk of aggressive breast cancer; Science Daily (2015)
11. Breastfeeding and reduced breast cancer risk; Michigan State University
12. What Are the Symptoms of Breast Cancer?; Centers For Disease Control And Prevention (2018)
13. Breast Lumps; Breastfeeding support
14. Engorgement; Australian Breastfeeding Association (2016)
15. Irusen H et al.; Treatments for breast abscesses in breastfeeding women; Cochrane (2015)
16. Breastfeeding during cancer treatment; UT Southwestern Medical Center
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