Does Breastfeeding Reduce Cancer Risk?

Moms know that breastfeeding is often one of the first decisions they’re confronted with after pregnancy. For many women, breastfeeding is encouraged because it plays an important role in the health of their newborn baby, and has been tied to improving infant mortality, preventing infections and contributing to the infant’s overall well-being. Moms might also know that studies have linked breastfeeding to an important health benefit: the reduced risk of breast cancer. However, most women aren’t learning about this information from their doctor, and as patient advocates, this is something the medical community needs to change.

Awareness Influences Decision Making

A survey conducted by my colleagues and I at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center — Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Research Institute found that among women who have had at least one pregnancy, 59 percent of women knew about the link between breastfeeding and breast cancer. For those who said they did breastfeed, around 38 percent said the knowledge of this link had influenced their decision. Interestingly, among those women who did not breastfeed, around 60 percent said that if they would have known about the reduced risk, it would have influenced their decision to breastfeed. For African-American women who are at a higher risk of being diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer, hearing this information might make a significant difference for cancer prevention.

[See: 10 Things No One Tells You About Breastfeeding.]

Looking for Answers

With women’s health on the line, who exactly is broadcasting this information? In the survey, only 16 percent of women had received this news from their health care provider when they were going through pregnancy or childbirth. To find this information, moms often go online and find it in forums or groups. In general, however, information from practitioners is the best way to influence positive behavioral change. With the medical community, midwives, PCPs and providers advocating for their patients, they can help make this link clear to mothers which, in turn, can help lower their risk of developing certain cancers and diseases.

[See: How to Promote Safe Sleep for Your Infant.]

How to Spread the Word

Breastfeeding as a lifestyle behavior is a complex, personal decision, often influenced by societal and cultural values. Though it’s impractical to expect every mother to be able to breastfeed, here are some ways to help spread the word to those who are able:

1. Moms should ask doctors the questions — any and all — they have regarding their decision to breastfeed.

2. Doctors should ensure mothers are getting reliable information that discusses the benefits of breastfeeding, before, during and after pregnancy.

3. For women at risk of developing high-mortality cancers, doctors should proactively seek to call their attention to the link between breastfeeding and breast cancer risk.

[See: 10 Ways to Make Your Childbirth Easier.]

Breastfeeding is a personal choice, and doctors must realize the communal role they play in ensuring the health of the individual — it’s time to speak up.

Bhuvana Ramaswamy , MD, MRCP, Associate Professor in Internal Medicine and Section Chief for Breast Medical Oncology, The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center — Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Research Institute.

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