Breastfeeding is Possible, Even With Breast Cancer

Health Writer

There has been an enormous effort in the medical community and the public health sector to encourage women to breastfeed. The goal is not to pressure but rather to encourage moms, with support from health professionals and lactation experts if necessary, to provide the optimal nutrition for their infants.

If you can breastfeed exclusively for three to six months or longer, there are a bounty of health benefits for you and your infant, including lowered breast cancer risk. If you can breastfeed part time and supplement the rest of the time with formula, there are still significant health benefits for both of you.

Women who have had, are currently living with, or are at high risk for breast cancer often can reap the benefits of breastfeeding, too. All new mothers—those with or at risk for breast cancer, and those seeking to prevent it—should be included in conversations about the advantages of breastfeeding for baby and mother.

Here are some common questions and promising facts about breastfeeding and breast cancer.

Can I get breast cancer while breastfeeding?

It’s possible to develop breast cancer while breastfeeding, but it’s rare. Women who are breastfeeding account for three percent of all breast cancer cases. It’s actually after you finish breastfeeding that the risk of developing breast cancer is slightly heightened. This may be due to certain hormones that elevate during pregnancy and lactation and then drop afterward. Pregnancy and breastfeeding, which both reduce the number of menstrual cycles over your lifetime, actually reduce the risk of breast cancer. Having a full-term pregnancy at an early age and multiple pregnancies also reduce overall risk of breast cancer. Longer duration of breastfeeding is also associated with decreased risk of hormone receptor-positive and hormone receptor-negative breast cancers.

If I know I have the BRCA1 mutation and I am at higher risk for breast cancer, can I still breastfeed?

You should discuss this with your OB/GYN specialist and oncologist (if you have one), but studies suggest that there is no danger, and actually a benefit of 30 percent reduced risk of developing breast cancer (which is the same reduced risk for healthy women who breastfeed) in women with the BRCA1 gene. If you have the BRCA2 gene, you may not have the same reduced risk of breast cancer if you choose to breastfeed.

Can I breastfeed if I am being treated for breast cancer?

This is a conversation that you need to have with your team of specialists. If you are not currently on chemotherapy, and are not taking long term medications including tamoxifen, an aromatase inhibitor, or trastuzumab, you may be able to safely breastfeed. If you completed chemotherapy, depending on the regimen, there is likely a lag period that needs to occur before you consider breastfeeding. This will allow all of these drugs to clear from your system.

Your doctor may be willing to allow you to take a break from some of the long-term medications mentioned above in order to breastfeed for a specific span of time. This becomes a personal decision that requires consultation with your oncologist, while you weigh the considerations.

If I had breast cancer surgery or radiation treatment, will that affect my ability to breastfeed?

Depending on the type of surgery you had, milk ducts and other vital breast tissue may have been removed, making breastfeeding impossible. Radiation therapy can damage or even destroy milk ducts, which may also affect your ability to breastfeed. If only one breast was treated, then you may have success breastfeeding with the unaffected breast. Many women, for a variety of reasons, practice unilateral breastfeeding—feeding the baby from one breast more than the other, or exclusively from one breast.

What can cause a lump or other worrying symptom while I’m breastfeeding?

Because you manipulate your breasts quite often when breastfeeding, it may be easy to feel a lump that suddenly appears, even if it’s quite small. A plugged milk duct can become inflamed and hard, causing an isolated lump. Massage, warm compresses, and breastfeeding on that side as often as every two hours can help relieve it. It’s normal for a lactating mother to continue to discharge milk and then clear fluid from the nipples for months after finishing breastfeeding, although it may seem like something’s wrong. Problems like this are easy enough to identify and resolve, but other breast conditions, such as mastitis, an abscess, or nipple retraction require a doctor’s attention.

If I find a new lump in my breast while breastfeeding, should I go to the doctor?

Unless it is clearly a plugged milk duct or innocent cyst, it is always good to see your doctor if you have a new lump in your breast, no matter how small. If the lump doesn’t disappear quickly, grows, or causes skin dimpling, you should definitely get it checked out.

It’s important to remember that the bond you forge with your newborn does not absolutely depend on breastfeeding. But if the idea of breastfeeding is important to you, your health team can help you optimize your chances to breastfeed.

See more helpful articles:

The Benefits of Breastfeeding

Simple Ways to Reduce Your Breast Cancer Risk Right Now

“Is This Normal?” 10 Symptoms That Probably Don’t Mean Cancer