Breastfeeding and breast cancer: What do you know about the link between the two?

Breastfeeding can help reduce the risk of developing breast cancer. Read more about this topic in this article...

breastfeeding and breast cancer

It is important for women to understand the link between breastfeeding and breast cancer and how the former can help prevent the latter.

Breast cancer is the most prevalent cancer among Singaporean women. According to Dr Esther Chuwa, a surgeon specialising in Breast diseases and Medical Director at the Esther Chuwa BreastCare Practice, Gleneagles Hospital —  about 1,400 new cases of breast cancer are diagnosed in the country every year, which is equivalent to about five new cases everyday.

That’s not all. According to the National Cancer Centre Singapore, more than 25% of all cancers in women worldwide are of the breast.

Alarming statistics, right? What can we do to avoid being a victim of this disease?

Regular mammograms and learning how to self-examine your breasts are two common preventative measures. However, there is something else, unique to mums, that can help reduce the risk of breast cancer — breastfeeding.

Validated by research

We know the benefits of nursing are many, especially for your child. Breastfeeding also provides you, the mum, with a host of benefits that go beyond emotional satisfaction and bonding with your little one. These include helping your uterus shrink after you give birth and reducing the risk of developing type 2 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and cardiovascular disease.

And then of course, research also shows that breastfeeding can play a role in reducing rates of breast cancer among women. In fact, the longer you breastfeed (one year and beyond), the more you are protected against the risk of developing breast cancer, according to a comprehensive study published in The Lancet

breastfeeding and breast cancer

Breastfeeding and breast cancer: Breastfeeding is one of the ways women can lower their risk of breast cancer.

How does breastfeeding lower the risk of breast cancer?

Dr Chuwa explains that breastfeeding (and pregnancy) “reduces a woman’s lifetime number of menstrual cycles, and thus her cumulative exposure to hormones,” helping to protect her from the incidence of breast cancer.

In addition, breastfeeding has a direct effect on breast cells; it causes differentiation and maturation in order to produce milk. This makes the breast cells more resistant to cancer  compared to cells that have never had the chance to mature.

Breastfeeding can also reduce the incidence of breast cancer due to the reduced systemic estrogen and progesterone levels during lactation, and the excretion of estrogens and carcinogens out of the breast ducts.

Breastfeeding following breast cancer diagnosis

Breast cancer rears its ugly head all too often in Singapore. But since the country has one of the most proficient and state-of-the-art medical systems in the world, patients can be sure that they are in good hands when it comes to treatment.

The recovery rate depends on the complexity of treatments required. However, Dr Chuwa says that in general, the earlier breast cancer is detected, the simpler the treatments are and the quicker a patient can recover.

breastfeeding and breast cancer

This powerful image, which went viral on the Internet, pictures an unidentified woman breastfeeding a newborn boy after reportedly having undergone a mastectomy and chemotherapy to treat her stage-3 breast cancer.
Image credit: Gentle Birth Options, LLC Facebook page.

Can a mum nurse during therapy?

Unfortunately, breastfeeding during therapy “is generally not advised as some drugs may pass into the breast milk rendering it unsafe for the infant,” explains Dr Chuwa. Most of the time these women may not successfully lactate anyway.

Breastfeeding after cancer

Following surgery for breast cancer, a mum may nurse successfully from the unaffected breast. But “the affected breast that has undergone surgery with or without radiotherapy will no longer be able to lactate successfully.”

Still, if a mum desires to breastfeed after treatment for breast cancer, it’s best to first consult with and get clearance from her doctor, suggests lactation nurse Jophia Bok.

breastfeeding and breast cancer

The support of close family and friends is essential for a mum wishing breastfeed after the treatment of breast cancer.

Here are some suggestions from Jophia for mums who have been diagnosed with breast cancer, and would still like to breastfeed their little ones:

  • Connect to a lactation trained nurse or consultant who has knowledge or experience in this area. Make several appointments to discuss your cancer treatment/ plan and how possible and safe breastfeeding your baby is.
  • Discuss your desire to breastfeed your baby during the appointments with the oncologist and breast surgeon. You should also discuss the following with your medical caregivers:
    • The cancer treatment plan, medications and surgery
    • The possibility of breastfeeding in the midst of treatment, as well as alternative treatment plans if you choose to breastfeed
    • The side effects on your baby should you choose to breastfeed following diagnosis and/or therapy
    • When you should absolutely stop breastfeeding

Having a supportive family members is also crucial in a breast cancer-affected mum’s effort to continue breastfeeding. They can provide practical help by assisting with household chores, looking after baby and providing nutritious meals.

Family members can also give emotional support by providing a listening ear and understanding and respecting the mother’s wish to breastfeed her baby.

Other ways of protecting yourself from breast cancer

Breastfeeding is just one way women can potentially reduce the possibility of developing breast cancer. However, before we talk about the other ways of lessening the risk of, or diagnosing breast cancer early, you should know about the two”types” of breast cancer.

Understanding the types of breast cancer

Dr Chuwa explains that breast cancer is generally classified as hereditary and non-hereditary. Hereditary breast cancers “results from a faulty gene inherited from one’s parents”.

In other words, a family history of rare cancers and/or breast or ovarian cancers diagnosed at a young age — for example, Angelina’s Jolie’s case — would be a strong risk factor for a woman to develop breast cancer at a later age. Only 5 to 10% of all breast cancers are hereditary.

For non-hereditary cancers, being a woman and advancing age are the biggest risk factors, says Dr Chuwa. Other risk factors include the use of hormone replacement therapy, alcohol consumption, smoking and obesity.

Also, “women who started menstruating before the age of 12 and went through menopause later than 55, never gave birth or had her first child after 30 have a cumulative lifetime exposure to oestrogens, and therefore have a higher risk of breast cancer.”

breastfeeding and breast cancer

By leading an active, healthy lifestyle, women can lower the risk of developing breast cancer.

Lowering the risk factors

Changing the risk factors for hereditary breast cancer is, unfortunately, difficult.

But when it comes to non-hereditary breast cancer, there are certainly things you can do — such as avoiding smoking and alcohol and leading a healthy and active lifestyle — that might lower the risk, explains Dr Chuwa.

Above all, “remember to do breast self examination monthly and go for regular mammograms after you turn 40, as early detection may well be your best protection.”

Through breastfeeding and other methods mentioned,  you have access to a unique mechanism that can potentially lower the risk of breast cancer. Do share this information with family and friends too.

Have you or someone you know been affected by breast cancer? Tell us your experience by posting a comment below.