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Breastfeeding After Breast Cancer = Patience & Precaution

Breastfeeding has been proven to reduce a woman’s risk of breast cancer, but what about breastfeeding after having battled breast cancer – Woman’s Hospital says it’s possible and women absolutely should try, but only with their physician’s approval.  While only seven percent of women diagnosed with breast cancer will be under the age of 40, for those women, the ability to choose to breastfeed can provide a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment in overcoming cancer. The health benefits to breastfeeding after cancer include a potential protective effect on the non affected breast. Women who desire to breastfeed after treatment, with the support of their health care team (physicians and lactation consultants) will have the most successful outcomes.

“Women should know that breast feeding after a single mastectomy is possible, but it may be more difficult,” says Dr. Michael Hailey, breast surgeon at Woman’s. Although one breast has been removed entirely, the remaining breast should be able to produce milk.  “The amount of milk produced may be limited, but with frequent nursing and breast pumping a woman should be able to breastfeed successfully,” says Hailey. He explains that by combining the nursing with pumping, a woman can improve her milk production.

Dr. Hailey strongly emphasizes that the new mother should first gain approval to breastfeed because many medications can be transmitted through breast milk.  He warns that women should NEVER breastfeed if they are actively undergoing cancer treatment such as chemotherapy or hormonal therapy.  With the conclusion of these treatments, breastfeeding is generally considered safe after approval from a woman’s oncologists. 

Each chemotherapy drug has a risk profile with a "time off" period that should be respected before resuming breastfeeding. Guidelines differ for each medicine so a woman’s oncologist will be able to make recommendations for individual patient depending on the drugs used during treatment.

As breastfeeding in general can be challenging, seeking the advice of lactation expert can be helpful. Nicole Fox, Lactation Consultant at Woman’s, says that her role is to help women through difficult breastfeeding and that, “One of the most critical steps in encouraging a good milk supply is frequent and thorough emptying of the breast. This should begin within the first hour or two after the delivery of the baby.” Mothers at Woman’s are seen by a lactation nurse every day of her hospital stay. At this time, an individualized plan that includes all of the medical staff involved in the care of the mother and her infant and take into account any medical restrictions or concerns.

“Breast cancer does not have to stop a woman from experiencing many of life’s special moments, it just may take a bit more effort,” says Hailey.

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