Nurturing Hope: Breastfeeding Moms and the Breast Cancer Battle
The big C. The word nobody wants to hear – especially a breastfeeding mama: cancer. Amid the treatment plans, medications, biopsies, and everything else that comes with a breast cancer diagnosis, moms with breastfeeding babies are left wondering how to best advocate for themselves and their little ones. There is shockingly little research available on breast cancer diagnosis and treatment as it relates to breastfeeding, but we’ve done our homework and compiled some helpful information for mamas who are navigating this difficult journey.
Once your doctor has identified an issue that needs more examination, there are several directions the diagnosis process can take. For the most part, it is safe to proceed with your breastfeeding plans throughout the diagnosis process! Here are a few notes on what to expect.
First things first: know that your baby cannot taste or detect cancer. It is not present in breastmilk and it cannot affect your precious little one in any way. The idea that babies can detect breast cancer is a theory that has not been proven in any way! The only time a baby may be aware of a change in your breast, is if there are skin changes among the cancer symptoms.
Mammograms, ultrasounds, and MRIs are completely safe and will not affect your breastmilk. There is also no need to stop breastfeeding, even for a core biopsy! Very few mamas report milk fistulas or any other complications related to these diagnostic procedures.
PET scans, bone scans and CT scans are similarly not considered to be cause for ceasing your nursing journey! If you do undergo a PET scan, you will need to be separated from your baby for about 12 hours. While this can be difficult and heartbreaking, the good news is that your milk will not be affected by the radiation in the PET scan and is safe for your baby! CT scans and bone scans are even easier, as they do not necessitate any separation between mama and baby.
For biopsies, be sure to request that your incision is placed away from the nipple and areola so that it will not be disturbed by your little one’s latch. If your doctor is placing titanium clips in your breast, or if lidocaine is used to numb the area, there is no need for concern! Both are considered to be completely safe. Epinephrine is also sometimes used for this purpose, in addition to lidocaine, and while there’s little research on it specifically, it has been found to have poor oral absorption qualities and is not considered to be a concern for breastfeeding babies.
If you are going in for surgery before beginning chemotherapy or radiation, there is no need to wean completely before undergoing the procedure! Although some physicians may be under the impression that weaning must occur before performing surgery, there is no indication that surgery for cancer treatment should be delayed.
If you are proceeding with reconstructive surgery on one or both breasts, it is still unnecessary to cease breastfeeding! In fact, a lactating breast has better circulation and may even heal more quickly than a non-lactating breast!
Unfortunately, it is widely accepted that it is not safe to continue breastfeeding during chemotherapy treatment. This can be a cause of major grief for a breastfeeding mama – as if a cancer diagnosis isn’t already difficult enough to process! Know that whatever amount of breastfeeding you’ve been able to give your baby by this point has truly been a gift. You are an incredible mama, and now you need to focus on healing your own body. If you want to continue to give your baby breastmilk rather than formula, you may want to look into a reputable milk donation program! It is the next best thing to being fed from mama’s breast.
Some mamas wonder about the possibility of pumping and dumping throughout the chemotherapy treatment process. While this may seem like a good idea on the surface, treatment for breast cancer can be quite lengthy. Not only that, but your body will be undergoing intense treatment, and the added stress of pumping could make your treatment and recovery more difficult. Your immune system will be depleted, so you would also be more susceptible to mastitis and other infections of the breast. Although it is a heartbreaking decision, the best course is to give your body a break and discontinue breastfeeding during chemotherapy.
Many mamas battling breast cancer will undergo radiation treatment. Unfortunately, it is unsafe to continue breastfeeding while undergoing radiation treatment due to the risk of infection for the mother. Your priority during this time will need to be keeping yourself healthy and healing so that you can be there for your baby long-term! Although it is often devastating to have to discontinue breastfeeding before you feel ready, caring for your health must take precedence as you undergo treatment for cancer.
It is our primal instinct as mothers to protect our children and put their needs before our own. That’s what makes us such powerful forces in our little ones’ lives! It is nevertheless sometimes necessary to place your own health and wellbeing before what you consider to be “best” for your child. You cannot think of anything more worthy of consideration than extending the time you have with your child. Breastfeeding may have to take a back seat, but getting healthy and treating breast cancer are undoubtedly the best things you can do for your baby.
For more helpful information on breastfeeding and cancer treatment, check out this helpful resource.