Breastfeeding during cancer treatment

Most doctors recommend women who are about to be treated for breast cancer stop (or not begin) breastfeeding, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they have to give up breastfeeding forever.
Most doctors recommend women who are about to be treated for breast cancer stop (or not begin) breastfeeding, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they have to give up breastfeeding forever.

Caring for a newborn baby can be stressful. So can going through breast cancer treatment. But juggling both at the same time? This invites an entirely new level of anxiety.

Breast cancer occurs in about 1 in 3,000 pregnancies and is the most common type of cancer diagnosed during pregnancy, after birth while breastfeeding, or within a year of delivery. The good news is that breast cancer doesn’t appear to harm your unborn baby. However, cancer treatment may interfere with your plans to breastfeed afterward.

Most doctors recommend women who are about to be treated for breast cancer stop (or not begin) breastfeeding, a heartbreaking directive for many new mothers. But you may not have to give up breastfeeding forever.

Here are some guidelines to help you know what to expect as you approach treatment (covering chemotherapy, surgery and radiation) and to give you peace of mind that you’re keeping your baby safe while taking care of your own health.

Is It Safe to Breastfeed During Chemotherapy?

No. For the safety of the baby, breastfeeding isn’t recommended during chemotherapy. Many chemotherapy drugs, especially cyclophosphamide and methotrexate, may appear in high levels in breast milk and could potentially harm your nursing baby.

To protect your breastfeeding child, you may choose to wean your baby prior to beginning chemotherapy. You may also decide to pump during chemotherapy and throw away the milk. By pumping, you will continue producing milk so you can resume breastfeeding once your oncologist assures you it’s safe to do so.

Should You Breastfeed Before and Immediately After Surgery?

No. If you’re planning to have surgery for breast cancer, stop breastfeeding in order to reduce blood flow to your breasts. This reduces the risk of infection and also helps prevent breast milk from collecting in the biopsy or surgery areas.

If you’re nursing, you may want to pump before you have surgery and store a supply of breast milk. This way, you’ll be able to continue feeding your baby breast milk while you’re separated during surgery and recovery. You may need to wait a little while after surgery to resume breastfeeding, because the anesthesia may get into your breast milk and harm your baby. Ask your surgeon how long the anesthesia will stay in your body and when you can safely go back to breastfeeding.

Can You Breastfeed During Radiation?

Maybe. Ask your oncologist whether it’s safe for you to breastfeed while you’re undergoing radiation. Breastfeeding during radiation may be safe, depending on what type of radiation you’re receiving and what part of your body is being treated. External beam radiation is usually safe for nursing mothers unless they’re getting chemotherapy concurrently. There are exceptions to this rule, however, so be sure to consult your oncologist.

As for internal radiation, it may be dangerous to your baby while you’re breastfeeding, so again, talk to your oncologist.

Will Your Baby’s Health Suffer When You Don’t Breastfeed?

Probably not. Many women feel guilty if they can’t breastfeed and may worry that their baby’s health or intellectual development will suffer as a result. But the current research on the effects of breastfeeding is inconclusive. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all infants be fed only breast milk for the first six months due to the nutritional superiority of breast milk to infant formula. However, one 2014 study of 1,773 sibling pairs — one fed breast milk and one fed formula — found no significant differences between the breast-fed and bottle-fed babies on any of the 11 measures of health (including obesity and asthma) and intellectual competency (including math ability and memory-based intelligence).

Talk with your pediatrician if you have any concerns about your baby’s health while you’re undergoing breast cancer treatment. If breastfeeding is going to pose too much risk to your baby, ask your pediatrician to recommend an infant formula. And remember, don’t let guilt get in the way of your recovery and being there for your child, now and for many years to come.

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