By Amanda Mkhize
The benefits of breastfeeding for young and pregnant mothers are manifold but not least due to the fact that breastfeeding helps reduce the risk of breast cancer developing later on in life.
Breastfeeding is one of the most effective ways to ensure your baby’s health and survival with the World Health Organisation recommending all babies be exclusively breastfed for the first six months of their life and, once your baby is introduced to solids, your breastfeeding should continue for two years and longer.
Breastmilk is ‘always best’ simply because it contains just the right amount of vitamins, nutrients and antibodies to build your baby’s immunity and protect it from infections and diseases; breastmilk is also gentle on your baby’s developing stomach, intestines and related body systems.
For cancer sufferers and those who have identified that breast cancer runs in your family, there are risks and precautions associated with breastfeeding that all new moms should know:
- First and most importantly, breastfeeding can help prevent breast cancer, with prolonged breastfeeding recommended to delay the occurrence of breast cancer in at-risk women. Women who breastfeed or pump their breastmilk are also less likely to develop high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes.
- Pregnancy associated breast cancer (diagnosed during pregnancy or up to 1 year after delivery) occurs in 1:3000 pregnancies. Breast cancer in lactating women is rare, with only around 3 percent of women developing breast cancer while breastfeeding.
- The predominant risk factors for developing breast cancer are being female and aged over 50 years, with first time childbirth at a late age (30 years and older) also being a risk factor for breast cancer.
Breastfeeding is a new skill to be discovered and absorbed, providing mother and infant with a unique language of comfort and love.
While new moms may run into difficulties breastfeeding for the first time, there are essential tools and practical support at hand to help milk supply come down, increase breastmilk supply, protect breasts and nipples from pain and chaffing and breast shields and newborn teats to encourage baby to latch properly, especially if mom’s nipples are inverted.
All mothers should be encouraged to breastfeed and establishing a breastfeeding routine is an important part of the journey, together with breast pumping your milk according to baby’s established feeding schedule to keep your milk flow on track while you adapt to changing home and work life schedules.
How does Breastfeeding Prevent Cancer?
According to midwife and researcher Professor Diana du Plessis, breastfeeding protects women from cancer due to the hormonal changes which take place during pregnancy and breastfeeding which cause a pause in monthly menstruation and the number and duration of ovulations. Consequently, women who breastfeed aren’t exposed to as much estrogenic and other hormones over their lifetime as women who do not breastfeed. This benefit is maximized if women breastfeed their babies for at least one year.
What Are the Symptoms of Breast Cancer?
Be alert to any new lump in the breast or armpit or a thickening or swelling of part of the breast. Redness or flaky skin in the nipple area or the breast may appear, or irritation or dimpling of breast skin and a pulling in of the nipple or pain in the nipple area.
Lumps may be a little harder to detect during pregnancy as the breasts swell and enlarge and lumps may only be diagnosed during lactation.
Can I Breastfeed if I have Cancer?
Should a mother be diagnosed with breast cancer while nursing, most medical professionals will recommend she stops breastfeeding. While you can’t pass cancer to your baby through breastfeeding or breastmilk, many therapies used during breast cancer treatment can be passed on to your baby, including chemotherapies, hormone therapies and anaesthesia administered during surgery.
If you have already had cancer, you may still be able to breastfeed, depending on the type of treatment you received, however you will need to seek your doctor’s advice.
Do’s and Don’ts of Breastfeeding & Cancer
Whether you are able to breastfeed your baby or not, it is important to build a strong emotional bond between you and your new infant.
Do not breastfeed if you have HIV, TB, if you are taking anti-depressants or other prescription medication, if you have had breast surgery or if you are experiencing post-partum depression.
Don’t give up on breastfeeding your new born infant no matter how hard you may find it at first. It is only rare situations that a mother cannot breastfeed due to structural breast issues preventing the production of milk in the mammary glands so you can breastfeed exclusively. Don’t start breastfeeding when you are feeling angry or depressed.
Do not ignore your pain if you are experiencing raw, swollen and sore nipples from breastfeeding. Mother and baby care products, such as the Vital Baby NURTURE Nipple Shield (R122.20) offers protection by creating a soft silicon barrier to help your sore nipples heal, without disrupting your breastfeeding routine. The teat of the shield can help improve latching while your baby still feels relaxed and comforted by your natural scent and bond.
Another reason breastfeeding is linked to cancer risk reduction is because new mothers usually watch their diet while breastfeeding, choosing more nutritious foods and cutting out alcohol and cigarettes for a healthier lifestyle overall.
To increase your milk supply, increase your intake of chicken, eggs, tofu, and seafood and eat protein-rich foods. Some studies suggest fennel may increase levels of prolactin, the main hormone responsible for stimulating milk production, increasing your milk volume and your infant’s weight gain.
To increase your milk flow, ensure baby is hungry at every feed and is latched well. Offer both breasts at each feeding and empty your breasts at each feeding. Use the Vital Baby NURTURE Flexcone Electric Breast Pump (2856.50) to express your milk at times you are not able to breastfeed your baby to maintain your supply, keeping it stored hygienically in the freezer for future use.
Once you have breastfed your baby for as long as possible and your breastfeeding journey comes to an end, you might find your breasts look and feel empty. Rest assured; they will return to their pre-pregnancy size but may look different for a while as they adjust. Once the fatty part of your breast returns, they will start to appear fuller and plumper once again.
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