Association of Breastfeeding With Breast Cancer

Shahid Iquebal   by Shahid Iquebal, M.Pharm.    Last updated on September 27, 2019,

breast-feeding and breast cancer

Breast-feeding and Breast cancer: Can it reduce risk of cancer of breast?

Yes, breastfeeding do reduce the risk of breast cancer according to research but specifics are hard to pinpoint. There are various studies which were conducted to find out the link between breastfeeding and breast cancer. These studies concluded that for every twelve months or more of breastfeeding (either with one child or with multiple children), the risk of breast cancer is reduced significantly in comparison to women who did not breastfed at all.

Therefore, if someone in the family (like your mother or sister) has ever had breast cancer, then you should definitely go for screening. It is even more important if your family member had a special kind of cancer which is fast-moving or difficult-to-treat or occurred at an early age.

Unfortunately, lower risk does not mean there is no risk. It is always reported that some women who have breastfed exclusively still get breast cancer (women are diagnosed with breast cancer after breastfeeding period also) and some women who have not breastfed a single day did not get any cancer. So, women of all ages must be aware and must check their breasts for any changes and lumps that may cause the onset of cancer.

Why does breastfeeding reduce the risk of breast cancer?

The answer to this question lies in various theories which were pointed out in different studies conducted. Those reasons or theories that point that breastfeeding prevents breast cancer may include:

  • Women who breastfeed have fewer menstrual cycles throughout their lives (months missed periods during pregnancy and missed periods after delivery while the woman breastfed). Fewer menstrual cycles means less exposure to estrogen, which is known to fuel some types of breast cancers.
  • Breastfeeding makes breast cells more resistant to mutations that can cause cancer.
  • Production of milk 24X7 limits breast cells' ability to misbehave.
  • Women during their pregnancy and after delivery tend to eat more nutritious foods and follow healthier lifestyles.
  • During pregnancy and while breastfeeding, women limit the consumption of alcohol and tobacco which are considered as causing agent for some cancers.

How long should you breastfeed to reduce your risk of cancer?

There is no such time limit for breastfeeding but studies have shown that the longer the process is carried out, the better it is. Even if women supplement with formula, it appears that breastfeeding of any kind still reduces your risk. Therefore, for women who have supply issues, they can mix the feeding process with formula. They should not feel like it's all-or-nothing.

Doctors recommend minimum 6 months of exclusive breastfeeding and maximum as long as both the mother and baby want to continue the process. However, ideally it is said that one to one and half year is the optimum period to breastfeed the child in order to achieve all the benefits of breastfeeding.

What if you can't breastfeed?

There may be various reasons why a woman cannot breastfeed such as listed below:

  • Low breast milk supply
  • Mother is suffering from an infectious disease like HIV which can be transmitted to the baby
  • Baby can’t breastfeed because of various problems like classic galactosemia

In such situations the only thing you can tell a woman is not to stress about it.

Most important thing is that the single most effective way to help cut off cancer risk is through healthy lifestyle habits and regular check-up. Breastfeeding is good but only if you can, and don't worry too much if you can't.