Family Matters

Breast-Feeding after Breast Cancer Is O.K.

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Breast-feeding may sound counterintuitive after breast cancer, but new research indicates there’s no reason why survivors shouldn’t nurse a baby — even on the treated breast.

Despite a lack of evidence that breast-feeding after breast cancer is bad for mother or baby, many doctors recommend that women steer clear, says Hatem Azim of the Department of Medical Oncology at Jules Bordet Institute in Brussels. (More on Time.com: 5 Pregnancy Taboos Explained (or Debunked)).

“It is a pity that women are denied the opportunity to experience normal motherhood and newborns are denied the endless benefits of lactation due to fears not based on any evidence,” says Azim, who conducted his research with Italian colleagues while working at the European Institute of Oncology in Milan. “We believe it is high time for the oncology community to realize that survivors’ issues should be identified…as oncologists, we should prioritize global women’s health and encourage this approach.”

Azim followed 20 women who gave birth after completing treatment for breast cancer. Half decided to breast-feed. The patients were followed up for a median of four years after they gave birth; in that time, two relapes occurred — one each in the group that chose to breast-feed and the group that didn’t, which led Azim to conclude that breast-feeding does not appear to have a “detrimental effect” on breast cancer outcome. “Although this study is very small, it is the second study we have conducted that has suggested the safety of breast-feeding following breast cancer diagnosis,” says Azim, who presented his findings at the 35th Congress of the European Society for Medical Oncology in Milan, Italy. (More on Time.com: Photos: The Landscape of Cancer Treatment)

More than half of the women who did not breast-feed had been advised against it by their doctors. Women who breast-fed were more likely to be successful if they had undergone breast-conserving surgery instead of mastectomies. And, like all would-be nursing moms, support plays a critical role. Lactation counseling proved particularly helpful for survivors. “These women need motivation and encouragement to face their fears regarding their breast cancer history and its effect on milk production, fetal health and of course risk of recurrence,” says Azim.

Women who attempted to nurse on the treated breast reported more difficulty than nursing on the unaffected breast. The treated breast yielded less milk, for one. (More on Time.com: Special Report: Advances for Breast Cancer Patients)

“The important findings of this study add to the body of evidence helping us to better advise our ex-cancer patients and future mothers: breast-feeding after breast cancer is not dangerous for the mother or the child,” says Alexandru Eniu of Cancer Institute “I. Chiricuta” in Romania.

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