Breastfeeding is a complex but important task for many mothers, as it can be beneficial for the health of the mother and the baby. Studies show that minimal breastfeeding reduces a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer by about 30 percent. This has been shown even in women who carry the BRCA1 mutation that increases the risk of breast cancer.
The scientific community has several hypotheses about why the risk of breast cancer decreases during breastfeeding. Pregnancy and breastfeeding reduce the number of menstrual cycles during a woman’s life, as well as her exposure to internal hormones linked to breast cancer risk. Some researchers also believe that pregnancy and breastfeeding have direct effects on breast cells, causing them to change so they can produce milk which may prevent them from becoming cancerous cells.
Some studies also indicate that mothers who breastfeed may have a lower risk of dying from breast cancer. Other research suggests that breastfeeding may reduce a mother’s risk of developing cancer and a child’s risk of developing cancer.
Does breastfeeding reduce the risk of breast cancer?
Today we know that a first pregnancy before the age of 24 and breastfeeding for six months or more significantly reduces the risk of breast cancer, a disease that can affect a small group of women who suffer from genetic disorders that increase the risk of developing it.
On the other hand, there are indications that – without considering these data to be completely conclusive – to a lower risk of breast cancer in women who receive breast milk from their mothers.
How can breast cancer be detected during breastfeeding?
Diagnosing breast cancer during pregnancy or while breastfeeding can be difficult, delaying the diagnosis. Symptoms of breast cancer are similar to those that may occur due to mastitis, including lump, pain, nipple discharge, and redness.
Breastfeeding mothers are more likely to get false positive or inconclusive results with a mammogram or ultrasound. Some providers are also reluctant to recommend imaging and biopsy, as most symptoms are common during breastfeeding and do not necessarily indicate cancer.
Diagnosing breast cancer during pregnancy and breastfeeding may complicate treatment. Women who are newly pregnant have a slightly higher overall risk of breast cancer over the next 10 years, most likely due to hormonal changes. Some types of breast cancer treatment may be applied safely during pregnancy, including certain types of chemotherapy, but others such as surgery or radiation therapy may be delayed.
If a patient is diagnosed with breast cancer while breastfeeding, most doctors recommend stopping breastfeeding. Many of the treatments used during breast cancer treatment may be passed onto the baby through breast milk, including chemotherapy, hormone therapy, and anesthetics used during surgery. Stopping breastfeeding will also reduce blood flow to the breasts, making them smaller and easier to examine and less likely to be infected.
Some chemotherapy treatments may impair fertility, but many women can get pregnant after breast cancer treatment, even if they receive chemotherapy, radiation and hormone therapy. Breastfeeding after surgery and breast radiation therapy can be difficult. These treatments may reduce the milk supply to the affected breast, but the contralateral breast must be able to produce milk.
Breastfeeding challenges many new mothers, and breast cancer may complicate the situation. It is important to discuss these issues with your doctors if you are breastfeeding or plan to breastfeed in the future.
The importance of self-examination for breast cancer detection
Self-examination and knowledge of the body itself allow a woman to identify changes in the shape and size of her chest, knowing that a change in the breast is not always a sign of cancer.
It is important – if you suspect you have breast cancer – to see a specialist for evaluation and diagnosis of the condition, and this also includes pregnant and breastfeeding women. For diagnostic tests, it is not necessary to stop breastfeeding the baby, and breastfeeding can continue as normal.
In order to perform diagnostic tests aimed at detecting breast cancer in women who are breastfeeding, the diagnosis must be made after the breasts have recently emptied of milk.
The first test commonly referred to in order to determine the safety, function and function of the breast, is a breast ultrasound .
We can also perform mammograms – even during pregnancy – after putting in place protection that prevents X-rays from reaching the fetus – although due to changes in the chest, this procedure can sometimes not be very helpful and therefore does not give us the desired result.
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can also be performed during breastfeeding but not during pregnancy, because this transfusion requires the injection of contrast material, and we do not know if this substance is safe on the fetus’ body or not. However, during breastfeeding, the amount of contrast material that can pass through breast milk into the body of the fetus is so small that expert instructions consider that performing an MRI scan during breastfeeding does not affect the fetus.
Cancer treatments during pregnancy and breastfeeding
There are anti-cancer drugs that are banned during pregnancy and breastfeeding because they affect the fetus, but there are other medicines that can be given.
During the months of pregnancy and during the breastfeeding period, treatment of breast cancer is carried out with the emphasis that these treatments be safe and aim to preserve the vitality of the fetus.
Surgery to remove a tumor can be done almost at any time during pregnancy.
You can also give some types of chemotherapy treatments from the second trimester of pregnancy that limit close medical supervision.
In contrast, radiotherapy cannot be given at any other time during pregnancy.
The possibility of treatment during breastfeeding depends on the woman’s desires and the treatments she receives that may or may not affect this function. In some cases, there is a need to stop breastfeeding during treatment.
There is no good and direct reason for women who have already had cancer to stop breastfeeding, although all of them will receive radiation therapy if they retain the breast. And if the mastectomy is done, they can also continue to breastfeed on only one breast.
In short, a woman can continue breastfeeding for as long as she wants.
There are actually documented cases of women diagnosed with breast cancer during pregnancy and undergoing surgical treatment with chemotherapy, who were able to cure the disease and breastfeed afterwards.
Breast cancer prevention
Breastfeeding, while making it available to everyone at no cost, is a very simple regimen that significantly reduces the risk of breast cancer, but has more significant benefits for the mother and the baby.
Health institutions should be more involved, both economically and socially, not in pressuring women to breastfeed, but to facilitate breastfeeding for women who wish to do so, and to ensure appropriate health care for their condition in the event of a problem (breast cancer, for example). The right of mother and child to breastfeeding should be respected.
Proper training of health workers, not just doctors who specialize in breast cancer, is essential in this situation.
Each case is unique
When we talk about breast cancer and breastfeeding, it is essential to evaluate each case according to the available scientific evidence.
If a woman had breast cancer before pregnancy and was treated, then there is no risk for her or her fetus, and studies have shown that breast cancer has no relationship to developing the disease later during pregnancy or lactation. In short, breast cancer is not a risk factor for future pregnancy and breastfeeding.
If a woman had breast cancer before pregnancy and wishes to breastfeed, there is no reason to hesitate to breastfeed.
If breast cancer is diagnosed during pregnancy, treatment varies according to the time of pregnancy. Breastfeeding after birth depends on the type of tumor and the treatment indicated in each case. In the third trimester, the risks of preterm labor must be weighed against the risks of chemotherapy and its effects on the fetus.
In the event that breast cancer is diagnosed during the breastfeeding period, making the correct diagnosis and stopping or not stopping breastfeeding will depend on the type of cancer and the indicated treatment.