Is It True That Breastfeeding Can Help Prevent Breast Cancer?
In the U.S., breast cancer is the cancer that targets the most women (not including skin cancer).
About 1 in 8 U.S. women will get invasive breast cancer in her lifetime. This year, almost 41,000 American women are expected to die from the disease, according to Breastcancer.org.
With these startling statistics, it may bring a bit of relief to know that breastfeeding can help protect you from it.
In honor of breast cancer awareness month, we’re highlighting how nursing can lower your risk. Since nursing can be difficult for many women, we’ve also included some resources for extra support.
Can Breastfeeding Lower Breast Cancer Risk?
Research has shown that breastfeeding can reduce a mother’s risk of developing breast cancer. Here are the interesting findings from just a few studies:
- One analysis showed that those who don’t breastfeed have an increased incidence of premenopausal breast cancer.
- Other research shows that breastfeeding helps reduce the risk of both post and pre-menopausal breast cancer.
- A 2002 study found that a mother’s risk for breast cancer decreased by 4.3% for every 12 months she breastfed.
- One 2001 study investigated mothers in China, where long-term breastfeeding is the norm. Researchers found that mothers who breastfed longer than 24 months per child decreased their breast cancer risk by 50%. This is compared to those who breastfed more than 12 months. They also found that the age a mother was when she first breastfed and the number of children she had did not seem to significantly impact her risk.
- One study found that risk is decreased further when a girl who is breastfed grows up to breastfeed her own children.
However, breastfeeding past this point may lower breast cancer risk even more. Research shows that your risk significantly lowers at 6 months and moving forward. After 6 months, you can start to slowly introduce real food to your baby, but also continue to give her breastmilk.
If possible, it’s ideal to supplement real food with breastmilk for up to 2 years or more, according to the WHO.
How Does Breastfeeding Lower Breast Cancer Risk?
So we’ve established that breastfeeding can help lower your risk for breast cancer, but how does it work? There’s a few reasons.
When most women lactate, they go through hormonal changes that delay their periods. In turn, this can reduce your overall exposure to hormones that can promote breast cancer cell growth. This is also the reason why breastfeeding can help prevent ovarian cancer; the less you ovulate, the less estrogen.
Another reason is that you shed breast tissue during pregnancy and breastfeeding. This can help you get rid of any cells that may already have DNA damage.
Some researchers also believe that lactating changes the expression of genes in breast cancer cells—leaving a lasting impact on the risk of cancer.
Breastfeeding also has other benefits that may decrease your risk for cancer. For example, women who nurse are less likely to be overweight. Since being overweight or obese can heighten your risk, maintaining your health can be an important factor.
Can You Still Get Breast Cancer If You Breastfeed?
Unfortunately, you can still get breast cancer if you breastfeed. Although you can lower your risk, you cannot totally eliminate it.
Through your pregnancy and parenting journey and beyond, you should always check your breasts for lumps and report any concerns to your doctor.
Some women notice new lumps when they’re breastfeeding. These are often related to plugged ducts and mastitis. When it’s treated, it should go away in a few days. Unlike lactation-related lumps, breast cancer lumps won’t move and will still remain after treatment. If you get several episodes of mastitis, it could be a sign of something more serious, such as a tumor.
If you’re pregnant or lactating, you can still get a mammogram. An ultrasound can also help examine breast lumps. If a lactating mother is diagnosed, she will go through traditional treatments such as surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. Many patients get breast-conserving surgery, which usually kills the tissue involved in producing milk. Still, some mothers are able to make some milk after the surgery.
When you report any concerns to your doctor, ensure he or she is taking them seriously by getting the proper tests for a correct diagnosis.
Other Benefits of Breastfeeding
Reducing your risk of breast cancer isn’t the only reason to breastfeed.
Interestingly, a 2013 study found that women who breastfed past 13 months were 63% less likely to get ovarian cancer compared to mothers who breastfed for less than 7 months.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it can lower your risk of type 2 diabetes and hypertension. It may also lower your risk for postpartum depression and help you lose your pregnancy weight quicker.
Breastfeeding also gives your baby numerous benefits. Some research has shown that breastfeeding for at least 6 months can decrease your baby’s risk of cancer, too.
It also lowers your child’s risk of ear and respiratory infections, asthma, type 2 diabetes, obesity and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), according to the CDC.
Need more reasons? Here’s a list of 111 benefits of breastfeeding.
7 Resources for Easier Breastfeeding
According to the CDC’s 2018 Breastfeeding Report Card, many women start out breastfeeding but stop earlier than they should. In 2015, about 83% of babies were breastfed in the early months, suggesting that mothers want to and are trying to. That number dropped to about half at 3 months, and only one-third were breastfeeding at 12 months.
Many women have trouble breastfeeding and it’s okay to feel frustrated when it gets difficult. There are a few resources you can use to make the experience easier so you can stick with it.
- Check for Local Breastfeeding Clinics. Some hospitals or community centers may offer free clinics that teach you breastfeeding techniques.
- Take an Online Breastfeeding Course. Whether you’re pregnant and trying to prepare yourself or want more information after the baby has arrived, consider taking an online course outlining the basics and beyond. Medela offers a course for $25, while Milkology offers a course for $19. You can also find free basic instructions or videos addressing specific problems on YouTube.
- Lactation Consultant. You can also consider hiring a lactation consultant who can teach you how to breastfeed your baby. They can help with problems such as painful nursing, latching issues and milk production. If a lactation consultant is out of budget, consider adding sessions as a gift option on your baby registry. You can also ask for it as a birthday or other holiday gift. You can find a breastfeeding counselor here or here.
- Find Breastfeeding Support Groups. When you’re feeling frustrated, it can be easier to keep trying when you have people who you can relate to. You may be able to find local support groups using Google, Facebook or Eventbrite. Another option is to use breastfeeding forums or apps.
- Breastfeeding Helplines. There are a variety of free hotlines you can use if you have any questions about nursing. If you’re located in the U.S., you can call the National Office on Women’s Health Helpline at 800-994-9662 or the La Leche League USA Breastfeeding Helpline at 1-877-452-5324. If you’re located in a different country, here is a list of nursing hotlines.
- Workplace Lactation Programs. According to the CDC, almost half of employers offer worksite lactation support programs you can take advantage of. You can also visit the Making It Work Toolkit, an online resource for breastfeeding mothers returning to work or school. It will also inform you about the laws surrounding breaks to breastfeed at work.
- Consider Products to Make it Easier. There are a variety of products that could make it easier for you to breastfeed. For example, breast pumps allow you to pump milk ahead of time so it’s ready whenever your baby is. Another option is to save the milk you leak throughout the day by wearing a milk-saver. If you’re having a hard time continuing because of nipple pain, purchase a nipple shield and a good cream. It’s also a good idea to continue taking prenatal vitamins even after pregnancy because it can help you lactate easier. For a full list of breastfeeding products we recommend, click here.
Learn more about breastfeeding by reading Everything You Need to Know About Breastfeeding: For Complete Beginners and Breastfeeding vs Formula: Which is Better?
Are you trying to breastfeed your newborn? If so, comment your tips below. Be sure to share this post with any expecting mothers so you can help them prevent breast cancer, too!
P.S. Have you heard about our fetal heartbeat monitors? These handheld devices allow you to listen to your baby inside the womb—similar to an ultrasound. Pretty amazing, right? You can check them out here.