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What is the correlation between breast cancer and breastfeeding?

Lactation may reduce the risk of breast cancer simply by interrupting ovulation. ©Shutterstock

Lactation may reduce the risk of breast cancer simply by interrupting ovulation. Dr. Shailaja Mane, MD (Pediatrics), PGDAP(Adolescent Health), PGDPC (Counselling), PGDMLS(Medicolegal Sciences), FRIPH (LONDON), Professor, Head of Unit, Department of Paediatrics, Member of Medela India LC Club, sheds light on the topic in this article.

Written by Editorial Team |Published : November 15, 2018 4:58 PM IST

In the search for practical methods to prevent breast cancer, lactation has a strong appeal. Breastfeeding reduces breast cancer as it makes breast cells more resistant to mutations that can cause cancer. Additionally, in several recent public studies, lactation, particularly for relatively long periods, is associated with a reduction in the risk of breast cancer. Lactation, particularly for relatively long periods, is associated with a reduction in the risk of breast cancer. Dr Shailaja Mane, MD (Pediatrics), PGDAP(Adolescent Health), PGDPC (Counselling), PGDMLS(Medicolegal Sciences), FRIPH (LONDON), Professor, Head of Unit, Department of Paediatrics, Member of Medela India LC Club, shares her insight on the subject.

According to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, Women with breast cancer have the following characteristics:

  • Started menstruation at an early age
  • Were older when they had their first child
  • Had few children
  • A family history of breast cancer
  • Overweight
  • Went into menopause at an older age

These characteristics are also related to lactation.

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The journal also highlights that among all women who have ever lactated, the relative risk of breast cancer is less, as compared with women with children who have never lactated. Age does not modify the relation between the duration of lactation and the risk of breast cancer. So, women at any age can breastfeed and reduce their chances of having breast cancer. Lactation may reduce the risk of breast cancer simply by interrupting ovulation. Direct physical changes in the breast that accompany milk production may also contribute to the protective effect. In particular, in early reproductive life breast tissue may be favourably influenced by these changes.

The WHO recommends breastfeeding for at least two years and beyond. If women who do not breastfeed or who breastfeed for less than 3 months were to do so for 4 to 12 months, breast cancer among women could be drastically reduced. If all women with children, lactated for 24 months or longer, the incidence might be reduced even more. Luckily, it is becoming more common to see women breastfeed up to 3 to 4 years these days. These mothers often follow what is called, baby led weaning.

The optimal duration of exclusive breastfeeding

Exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life in both developing and developed country settings is beneficial for children. Exclusive breastfeeding for 6 months and prolonged breastfeeding, mothers tend to have their menstruation return later.

Pregnancy post breast cancer

Some treatments for breast cancer may affect a woman & fertility to have a baby. Chemotherapy for breast cancer might damage the ovaries, which further cause immediate or delayed infertility. Some health care providers recommend women to not get pregnant in the first 6 months after finishing chemotherapy as any damaged eggs leave the body within those first 6 months. Health care providers also suggest waiting 2 to 5 years before trying to have a baby. Women have the capacity to conceive even post-treatment. They want to harvest and save their eggs before they start with cancer treatment.

Babies of breast cancer survivors

Some children inherit DNA mutations from a parent that increase their risk of cancer. Most childhood cancers, however, are not caused by inherited DNA changes. According to the American Cancer Society, though unusual, the most common cancer in new-borns is neuroblastoma - a rare cancer of the developing nervous system. It can be present with a tumour near or around the spine as well as in the abdomen or the adrenal gland. Sometimes it is quite evident as the baby & liver gets unusually enlarged. It's normal for new-born babies to have mild or even swollen, enlarged breasts or lumps under the nipple which over the course of time becomes normal. Due to exposure to maternal hormones in the womb, these lumps are mostly benign. So be happy and rejoice while you're feeding your baby as you know that breastfeeding provides innumerable benefits to the both of you!

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