Breastfeeding and Breast Cancer

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, a month when we’re all thinking pink and reflecting on our own health as it pertains to the risk factors of breast cancer.  Chances are each of us knows someone who has been touched by this disease.  There are nearly 220,000 women diagnosed with breast cancer every year in the U.S. and approximately 40,000 die of it annually.

There is no cure for any type of cancer, but months, like October, are dedicated to advocacy and fundraising for various types of cancer.  Many of the known risk factors of cancer – all cancers – are the same:  smoking or any use of tobacco or nicotine products; exposure to radiation; infection; sunlight; genetic factors; hormones; and aging.  It is also believed that poor diet, being physically inactive, excessive alcohol consumption, stress and environmental conditions can be risk factors of cancer as well.  While we cannot change our genes or the natural aging process, there are certainly ways to position ourselves to reduce our own risk of cancer.  These include: eating a healthy diet, getting plenty of exercise, limiting sun exposure, avoiding tobacco and alcohol and maintaining overall full-body health and wellness.

Breastfeeding and Breast CancerFor women, when it comes to breast cancer, there is one additional measure we can talk for ourselves and our daughters:  Breastfeeding.  Breastfeeding reduces risk of both estrogen-negative and estrogen-positive breast cancers.  And there is never too much of a good thing when it comes to breastfeeding as it relates to lowering risk of breast cancer.  Statistically speaking, the longer a mother breastfeeds, the more her risk is reduced.  Women who breastfeed for more than a year total, between all of her children, have a 28% lower risk of breast cancer than those who do not.

Breastfeeding lowers a woman’s risk of breast cancer for several reasons:

First, between pregnancy and breastfeeding, a nursing mom will have less menstrual cycles.  Breastfeeding usually delays the return of periods, which is call amenorrhea.  Some women that breastfeed don’t menstruate for more than a year after giving birth.  Less menstrual cycles result in lower estrogen in the body, which reduces the potential for cancer.

Believe it or not, breasts that are busy making milk don’t have time to form cancer cells.  Producing breast milk takes a lot of effort – 25% of the body’s energy, in fact.  When cells are focused on making that wonderful, nutritious, delicious milk for babies, they are less likely to develop cancer.

Additionally, women who breastfeed tend to be healthier on the whole.  It could be because breastfeeding is a choice that health-conscious women make for the health of both themselves and their babies.  It also could be that, even if they are not as concerned for their own health, mothers are interested in the very best health for their babies.  That means a healthy diet that is passed through breast milk to the baby, as well as exercising, stress management and getting plenty of sleep.  And most moms who are breastfeeding follow recommendations of not smoking and drinking alcohol.

For babies, human milk can provide amazing antibodies to keep their bodies strong in infancy and throughout their entire lives.  Their immune systems are stronger, they get less bacterial and viral infections and they contract fewer diseases.  They also tend to be healthier, eat healthier, are less likely to be obese and are more well-adjusted members of society.  Remember those risk factors from earlier?  Many of them may be avoided by giving your baby a great nutritional start and being a role model for healthy habits.  As if that were not enough, baby girls who are given human milk are 25% less likely to get breast cancer themselves.

There is not definitive way to avoid getting cancer.  But knowing risk factors and avoiding them is your best chance at personally evading this life-threatening disease.  Make breastfeeding one of the ways you stand up to cancer.  It could save your life and it could save your baby’s life some day too.