March 07, 2022
6 things to know about breastfeeding and your cancer risk
BY Heather Alexander
Moms-to-be get asked a lot of questions. How are you feeling? Have you picked a name yet? How long to go? And then the questions about the birth and beyond, such as: Are you planning to breastfeed?
Many health care providers and hospitals offer classes and services to support breastfeeding. That’s because breastfeeding has been shown to offer benefits to mother and baby. Breast milk is specially formulated for babies’ nutritional needs, disease prevention and overall health.
“Breastfeeding is more than a wonderful bonding opportunity; it also lowers your risk for some types of cancer,” says Therese Bevers, M.D., director of MD Anderson’s Lyda Hill Cancer Prevention Center.
Here are six things she wants you to know about breastfeeding.
1. Breastfeeding reduces your risk for breast and ovarian cancers.
Breastfeeding has been shown to reduce your risk for breast cancer and ovarian cancer. Studies vary according to the exact amount it reduces your risk, but you’ll get a significant benefit if you can breastfeed for at least one year. You get the most benefit if you can breastfeed for more than two years. The benefit is the same if this time is for one child or the total time you breastfeed all of your children.
“There are a couple of ways breastfeeding reduces your risk for cancer,” says Bevers. “One is that it can delay ovulation and reduce your lifetime exposure to estrogen. Another is that breastfeeding may lead your body to shed breast cells, and in that process, you’ll likely shed cells that had the potential to become abnormal.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends breastfeeding exclusively for the first six months, with continued breastfeeding along with solid foods for one year or more.
2. Help is available to get you started with breastfeeding
Getting started with breastfeeding can be awkward, painful and may involve tears from both mom and baby. But there are resources to help you. Your OB/GYN may suggest a lactation specialist who can visit you in the hospital after your baby is born.
There may also be lactation support services in your community. Some organizations offer this support for free. Accessing these services will help you make sure your baby is getting enough milk and help you achieve the best latch for your child. Many women succeed with breastfeeding by combining it with pumping and bottle-feeding breastmilk while mom and baby get to know each other. Others supplement with formula in the beginning and switch to fully breast milk once their supply is built up.
3. If you can't breastfeed, you can still reduce your risk for cancer
There are many reasons breastfeeding might not work out. If that’s the case for you, there are other ways you can reduce your risk for cancer.
“Breastfeeding is not by any means the most important thing you can do to reduce your risk for breast and other cancers,” says Bevers. “Being physically active, eating a healthy diet and keeping up with your cancer screening exams, like mammograms, are the key things to do to reduce your cancer risk.”
Get up and about with your baby as much as you feel comfortable, and focus on plant foods like whole grains, vegetables, fruits along with lean proteins like chicken and fish. And don’t skip your screening appointments.
“The main reason to breastfeed is for the benefits it offers to your baby,” says Bevers. “Any cancer risk reduction mom may get should be viewed as a bonus, not a must have.”
4. Stay breast aware while breastfeeding.
Your breasts will change during and after pregnancy. Often these changes are related to having a baby and breastfeeding. For instance, some women may develop breast infections like mastitis while breastfeeding. This may result in redness, pain, warmth and breast swelling.
It’s important to pay attention and talk to your doctor if you notice anything concerning.
“You may start to feel new lumps in your breasts because of pregnancy and milk production. In most cases, this is normal,” says Bevers. “But if you feel a lump that does not go away after a week or so, get it checked out by your doctor.”
5. You can get your mammogram if you are breastfeeding.
It is safe to get a mammogram while you are breastfeeding or pumping. Milk production can make it hard to see what’s going on in your breasts, though, so your doctor will likely ask you to pump right before your mammogram. Take your pump with you to the doctor’s office and ask for time and space beforehand to empty all the milk. You can save this milk for your baby for later; it is safe to start feeding your baby right away when you get home. There is no need to pump and dump any milk.
6. Talk to your doctor about breastfeeding during cancer treatment.
Breastfeeding during cancer treatment can be difficult because many medications will pass through your system and into your milk. You may be able to pump to maintain your supply during treatment and then resume feeding once medications have cleared your system. Donated breast milk may be available if you cannot use your own milk. Talk to your doctor to find out the best options for you and your baby.
Request an appointment at MD Anderson online or by calling 1-877-632-6789.
Breastfeeding is a wonderful bonding opportunity that also lowers your risk for cancer.
Therese Bevers, M.D.