Thanks to remarkable advances in both detecting and treating cancer, young children who are diagnosed with various forms of the disease have an 80% chance of surviving into healthy adulthood.
And while numerous studies have documented that these youngsters end up paying a price for their life-saving treatment — in the form of added health risks such as heart disease and secondary cancers — a new study shows that at least for some female survivors, a relatively simple intervention could alleviate some of that risk.
It turns out that childhood cancer survivors who decide to become mothers can benefit from breast-feeding their babies. The benefits of breast milk for newborns are well known — it helps them develop strong immune systems and sets them up for proper metabolic development. But breast-feeding can also benefit moms who have battled cancer in their younger years, by improving their bone density, lowering their risk of obesity, controlling their risk of heart disease, and even curbing their risk for second cancers.
Cancer treatments often involve exposure to toxic chemotherapy and radiation, and these agents can translate to as much as a 25-fold increased risk of breast cancer among female survivors by the time they reach adulthood. But studies of cancer incidence among new mothers found that breast-feeding can lower this risk by 11% to 25% for women who adopt the practice for 6 months to 24 months throughout their reproductive years, compared with those who don’t breast-feed. Lactation, say experts, triggers changes in the breast and in the combination of hormones circulating in a mother’s body, all of which may collectively counter the formation of malignancies in breast tissue.
Cancer treatments can also sap young bones of calcium and leave the skeletal system more vulnerable to osteoporosis, and while breast-feeding can lead to an initial loss of calcium, studies have shown that over time, women who breast-fed rebounded beyond their initial bone density levels and ended up strengthening their bones in the process.
The physical act of breast-feeding is also a well-known calorie burner, and mothers who nurse their babies often lose more weight in a shorter period of time than mothers who opt to formula-feed.
In addition, nursing is associated with a lower risk of diabetes and other heart disease risk factors such as high cholesterol, a good thing for childhood cancer survivors, who are often at heightened risk of heart-related health problems.
So taken together, the latest study, conducted at the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, found that breast-feeding has a positive impact on a number of systems that are affected by childhood cancer. “Breast-feeding may be one more of those behavioral interventions like not smoking, eating a healthy diet and exercising that we can offer to childhood cancer survivors to reduce their later health complications,” says James Klosky, a psychologist at St. Jude and a co-author of the study.
The results aren’t a guarantee that all women who survived cancer as children and then decided to breast-feed their own children will get a clean bill of health. But the study offers an intriguing new avenue for research into additional behaviors that could lower the health risks that this population faces. Klosky says he is hoping to conduct additional studies in which he more closely follows women survivors who either breast-feed or chose not to nurse their babies, and compare them to their close relatives who are not cancer survivors to better understand what impact cancer and its treatment have on women’s reproductive systems.
He admits that cancer survivors, particularly those who were treated for Hodgkin’s lymphoma with radiation to the chest, neck and armpit areas, often do have more challenges lactating and breast-feeding than women who are cancer-free. But “we expect that the majority of cancer survivors across all diagnoses and treatments should be able to lactate and breast-feed,” he says. “In the big picture, the benefits of breast-feeding demonstrated in the healthy population should not only be generalizable to women who survived childhood cancer, but in some ways may even ameliorate some potential late side effects that they experience, because it just so happens that breast-feeding can improve those systems affected by cancer treatments.”
So what’s good for baby can be good for the mother as well, especially if she’s a cancer survivor.