Breastfeeding your baby allows you to give the best nutrition possible to your new little one. It provides the perfect combination of fat, carbohydrates and protein along with antibacterial and antiviral properties, which will give your baby’s immune system a boost. Studies have found that breastfeeding can help protect you as well by decreasing your risk of breast cancer.
Breastfeeding and Your Risk of Breast Cancer
There have been several studies done on the effects of breastfeeding and breast cancer. The four most notable studies found the following results:
- A 2002 study of 150,000 women found that for every year that a woman breastfed (either one child or multiple children combined), breast cancer risk decreased by 4.3 percent.
- A study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute found that women of African descent have a higher risk of developing an aggressive form of breast cancer known as estrogen receptor-negative and triple-negative. Though childbirth has been found to increase a woman’s risk of developing this type of breast cancer, breastfeeding decreases this risk.
- A collaborative study of 37,000 cases of breast cancer that was published in the Annals of Oncology found that women reduced their risk of developing hormone-receptor-negative breast cancer by 20 percent when they breastfed.
- A 2009 study of 60,000 women found that those who had a family history of breast cancer reduced their risk by 60 percent by breastfeeding.
These four studies, along with many others, have led researchers to the conclusion that breastfeeding does help prevent breast cancer in both premenopausal and postmenopausal women. Because most cases of breast cancer in premenopausal women present with aggressive forms, breastfeeding seems to be most effective in preventing these types.
How Breastfeeding Affects the Risk of Breast Cancer
Researchers aren’t exactly sure why breastfeeding reduces the risk of breast cancer. Several theories have been presented, however, which include:
- Breastfeeding helps shed some of the breast tissue in the breasts, which could possibly remove breast cells that have potential damage to their DNA.
- Breastfeeding can reduce the number of menstrual cycles a woman has, which decreases the exposure that a woman has to estrogen.
- Estrogen has been shown to fuel some forms of breast cancer.
- Breastfeeding may help breast cells become more resistant to mutations that can cause breast cancer to occur.
- Women often make better lifestyle choices during pregnancy and breastfeeding, including eating a healthy diet, exercising and not smoking. Healthy lifestyle choices can decrease a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer.
If you have chosen not to breastfeed, there is no need to panic. Some studies have shown that pregnancy also reduces your risk of developing breast cancer. Researchers believe that this is because pregnancy prevents ovulation from occurring and because changes to the breast cells during pregnancy can prevent mutations from occurring.
Studies have shown that women who breastfeed exclusively for at least six months have the greatest protection against breast cancer, and this protection increases the longer a woman breastfeeds.
Lactation-related Lumps versus Abnormal Breast Changes
Having a decreased risk doesn’t mean that women have no chance of developing breast cancer, unfortunately. While it is very rare, some women do develop breast cancer during pregnancy or lactation.
There is nothing scarier than finding a lump in your breast. Fortunately, most lumps in your breasts that are found while you are breastfeeding are due to either clogged or plugged ducts or mastitis. These lactation-related lumps typically resolve within a few days with treatment. Abnormal breast changes don’t resolve and typically present with the following signs or symptoms:
- A lump that feels “fixed” or attached to the breast.
- Skin that puckers or dimples over or around the mass or lump.
- Experiencing spontaneous clear or bloody discharge from the nipple.
- Repeated episodes of mastitis in the same breast that could be occurring due to another breast problem, such as a tumor.
- A breast that is red in color but does not occur with a fever.
If you experience any of the signs or symptoms, make an appointment with your healthcare provider as soon as possible.
Breastfeeding is a wonderful way to provide your little one the nutrition that he or she needs during the beginning of their new lives. While it gives your little one everything that he or she needs, it can also help you, too, by helping decrease your risk of breast cancer. Though breastfeeding helps, it’s important to remember that monthly self-breast exams and regular exams with your healthcare provider are the best way to catch breast cancer in its earliest stages when it’s most treatable.