Cancer Prevention

Breastfeeding & Cancer: What’s the Connection?

Every mother knows that breastfeeding can be a challenge. Mothers often face sore nipples, plugged ducts, engorgement, and a long list of other painful experiences. However, those who can breastfeed will reap health benefits for both mother and baby – some that are relatively well known and others that are not. Let’s dive into how breastfeeding can protect against cancer.

Breast Cancer & Breastfeeding

Mothers who breastfeed can lower their risk of pre-and post-menopausal breast cancer. Those who surpass the recommended six months of breastfeeding gain extra protection. Most mothers who breastfeed experience hormonal changes that delay their menstruation. The delayed menstruation reduces a woman’s lifetime exposure to hormones like estrogen – which can promote breast cancer cell growth.

During pregnancy and while breastfeeding, women also shed breast tissue. Shedding breast tissue can remove cells with potential DNA damage, further reducing the chances of developing breast cancer.

Ovarian Cancer & Breastfeeding

Breastfeeding also can lower one’s ovarian cancer risk by preventing ovulation. The less one ovulates, the less exposure to estrogen and abnormal cells that could become cancer.

Baby Health & Breastfeeding

It is no secret that breastfeeding helps keep babies healthy, but did you know that it can protect them against cancer? Breastfed babies are less likely to become overweight or obese later in life. Obesity is a risk factor for many diseases, including a long list of cancers.  

Is it ever unsafe to breastfeed?

Sometimes breastfeeding is not possible and, so long as the baby can obtain nutrition in another form, that’s ok! However, sometimes even people who can breastfeed should avoid it. These circumstances are called contraindications to breastfeeding.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, mothers should not breastfeed or express breast milk for their babies if:

  • the infant is diagnosed with classic galactosemia
  • the mother is diagnosed with HIV, infected with human T-cell lymphotropic virus (type I or II), is using illicit street drugs, or has suspected/confirmed Ebola virus disease

Mothers should temporarily suspend breastfeeding and expressing breast milk for their babies if she is:

  • infected with untreated brucellosis
  • taking certain medications (always speak to a doctor first)
  • undergoing diagnostic imaging
  • has an active HSV infection with legions present on the breast

Mothers should temporarily stop breastfeeding when they have untreated, active tuberculosis or have active varicella. In these instances, mothers can feed expressed breast milk.

What about cancer patients?

Regarding cancer, it is considered unsafe to breastfeed when taking chemotherapy drugs. These drugs are dangerous for nursing infants because they interfere with the normal, healthy division of cells in the body.

Patients undergoing surgery should plan ahead if they wish to continue feeding their infant breastmilk. If planning to continue, pump and store a supply of breastmilk before the procedure where possible. Pumping before treatment allows the baby to continue feeding while separated from the mother and on medications as advised by the medical team.

When it comes to radiation therapy, the level of risk depends on which part of the body is exposed to radiation. No matter what the treatment may be, it is essential to discuss the associated risks with the medical team and build a breastfeeding plan.