Breastfeeding and Breast Cancer: How if Any Are They Related?

Posted by [email protected] on August 20, 2016 at 11:15 PM

Breastfeeding and Cancer: How if Any Are They Related?

I recently spoke to two friends who had both being diagnosed with breast cancer. For one, she was celebrating her 20th year been cancer free, and she was getting ready to retire from a long and illustrious career. My other friend had just been diagnosed with breast cancer in the spring of 2016, and she was getting ready to start her chemo and radiation treatment. These women had a few things in common, they were both mothers and grandmother, they were hard workers who had led very stressful lives, but another common bond was that when they had the opportunity, they opted not to breastfeed their children.

Now, this is not to say that women who refuse to breastfeed always end up with cancer, but multiple studies continue to show a strong correlation between breast feeding and cancer. In fact, according to the Susan Komen Foundation breastfeeding lowers a woman’s risk for breast cancer, especially during premenopause. In addition, the longer a woman breastfeed the greater the protection. Research also indicated that women who breastfeed and ended up having breast cancer are less likely to die from breast cancer and to have the cancer reoccur, than women who don’t breastfeed.

So, given all of these benefits, why then do women choose not to breastfeed? What swayed my friends away from breastfeeding their babies. These are great questions given that August is National Breastfeeding Month. As a former Women, Infant, and Children (WIC) nutritionist, I remember working hard to share the benefits of breastfeeding with my young African American or Hispanic/Latino clients. Many would listen intently to my spiel about the benefits of breastfeeding, but they would often ask whether I had breastfed my children and I was proud to say that I had. In fact, I had breastfed one child for several years. This by the way is still a family joke and something he is often teased about by his siblings. So given, the benefits of breastfeeding and the close bond that is formed when women breastfeed, what then stops a woman from breastfeeding.

This is the million dollar question, and so I decided to ask my friends to weigh in, given that this is National Breastfeeding Month. Here is some of what I heard from these women. One woman reported that she was very young and no one encouraged her to breastfeed. Both women view their breast as “sexual organs” and cringe at the thought of having them sucked on by a child. They saw their breast as only for sexual pleasure, not for breastfeeding a baby. One reported being separated from her second child because of medical complications, and never having a chance to breastfeed. Another reported never producing enough milk to breastfeed. All in all, between medical issues, or sexual preferences, both these women missed the opportunity to breastfeed a total of six children.

Whatever the reason, the CDC reported in 2015 that only 59% of African American women breastfeed compared to 79% of Hispanic/Latino and 75% of White women. Also, 63% of women with less than a high school diploma breast-fed as compared to 84% of college graduates. Only half of young mothers under the age of 20 breastfed, but 68% of mothers between the ages of 20 and 29 breastfed. Seventy seven percent of older mothers over the age of 30 were the ones most likely to breastfeed.

Choosing to breastfeed is a personal issue and is influenced by several factors including, a woman’s race, age, culture, and medical condition, yet it is always important to keep in mind the benefits of breastfeeding, including a lower risk for cancer. So, here’s to all breastfeeding women and to all breast cancer survivors. In our small way, we have made a difference in our world. So, have you had any experience breastfeeding your children, or been diagnosed with breast cancer. If yes, add your voice to our blog this month.

If  yes, lets hear from you.


Dr. Meg


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