In July, 22 weeks into her second pregnancy, Jamie Cottrell Thomas was diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer. A treatment plan was quickly mapped out — she would start chemotherapy, which is considered safe for pregnant women and their unborn babies — and have a mastectomy shortly after giving birth. As she struggled to accept the news, she couldn’t shake one thought: without breasts, how would she feed her baby?
Thomas emailed Jill Krause, keeper of the popular BabyRabies blog. That night, Krause awoke in the middle of the night to nurse her own baby. Browsing her email in the wee hours, she saw a message from Thomas. Its subject? A favor. As a successful blogger, Krause gets asked lots of favors; most of them involve sharing a post or advice on starting blogs. This favor was different. Krause recognized the sender — Thomas commented frequently on BabyRabies — and she quickly scanned the email. Then she cried. The irony of reading Thomas’ request for donor milk while Krause herself breast-fed her own daughter wasn’t lost on her.
The next day, she blogged about Thomas’ request for milk, writing she had “a feeling we can all come together and make that happen for her.”
More than 100,000 people read her post, and more than 100 said they could donate. In the end, Thomas’ most realistic option was the offer from a group of moms in Orange County, Calif., where Thomas lives. Even before Thomas, who is 37, entered the hospital in October to give birth, the group had already dropped off its first batch of donor milk at her home.
Erin Pence, a mom of a 14-month-old son, made the delivery. She handed over 180 ounces of milk, from six mothers who are part of a 70-mother group of first-time moms. They call themselves the Orange County New Natural Moms. It was Pence who first read Krause’s post about Thomas. When she realized she lived nearby — both she and Thomas are in Costa Mesa — she looped in the rest of the New Naturals. “It is so overwhelming just having a baby without having to worry about anything else on top of that,” says Pence. “Having breast cancer at the same time is a lot to deal with.”
Within an hour of Pence asking via Facebook who’d be interested in a milk drive, moms were volunteering. Breast milk, of course, has been a shared commodity since the days of wet nurses. It fell out of favor over the years, but more recently, groups such as Human Milk for Human Babies have brokered exchanges of milk from moms with a surplus to moms in need. This week, some moms who lost power from superstorm Sandy opted to donate their thawing frozen milk rather than watch it go to waste.
(MORE: Breast Milk During the Storm: With Power Gone, Moms Safeguard their Stash)
But swapping milk comes with its own public-health concerns. Most experts urge women to donate to the country’s network of a dozen or so official milk banks that are part of the Human Milk Banking Association of North America. Milk banks screen donors for disease and pasteurize the milk, but purchasing it can be prohibitively expensive and insurance coverage is spotty. That’s one of the reasons Thomas didn’t have the energy to start the battle for coverage though she’s not ruling out that avenue. “It’s a weird thing to get used to, having milk coming from lots of people you don’t know,” says Thomas. “You kind of just have to trust people.”
The New Naturals, for their part, have tried to set Thomas’ mind at ease, alerting her if they’re taking medications that can pass into breast milk. “The moms in our group are all breast-feeding their own babies,” says Pence. “They would never put anything in their bodies that they think could be harmful.”
This is hardly the only time nursing mothers have stepped in to help one of their own. A group of Canadian moms is currently supplying breast milk for a mother battling cancer. And last year, moms from around the U.S. answered a call for breast milk from cancer patient Renee Noble, who gave birth to baby Violet in New York last November and died in December.
Each year, as many as 1 in 1,000 pregnant women are diagnosed with breast cancer, despite the fact that breast-feeding is in fact protective against breast cancer. But doctors expect the number of pregnant women diagnosed to increase as women postpone child-bearing since the risk of breast cancer rises as women get older.
(MORE: Milk Banks vs. Milk Swaps: Breast Milk’s Latest Controversy)
That’s why Best for Babes, a breast-feeding advocacy organization, is using Thomas’ story to raise awareness of the plight of new moms with breast cancer — and to emphasize the need for donor milk for moms who don’t want to feed their babies formula. They’ve established the Miracle Milk(TM) Fund for Pregnant Moms with Breast Cancer. “The number of pregnant women being diagnosed with breast cancer is on the rise,” says Best for Babes co-founder Danielle Rigg, herself diagnosed with breast cancer when her kids were ages 2 and 5. “Babies who have suffered through chemo in utero especially need the healing and immune-boosting power of human milk.”
That was exactly Thomas’ rationale. She’s not against formula-feeding — she breast-fed and gave formula to her son, Jack, now 2 — but she hoped that breast milk might give a boost to her daughter, Amelia-Rae Faith, who was born Oct. 16. “The fact that she’s been exposed to four chemos before birth bummed me out,” says Thomas. “I figured it would give her a better start.”
So far, Amelia-Rae is thriving. She weighed 7 pounds, 4 ounces at birth and made her Halloween debut wrapped in a pumpkin swaddling blanket, accompanied by her brother, a scary dragon.
Thomas is scheduled for a mastectomy on Nov. 20, followed by 12 more weeks of chemotherapy, then six weeks of radiation. She’s got enough to worry about, but thanks to the donated breast milk, figuring out how to feed Amelia-Rae is no longer a concern. “I pumped with my son, and I know it is a huge pain,” says Thomas. “It is not fun. To offer to do that for someone you don’t even know…it’s pretty amazing.”