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Many mothers subscribe to the belief that breastfeeding is healthy for their children. Medical experts encourage breastfeeding for at least a period of one year so that the infant receives optimal nutrition and the antibodies necessary to start off life on a healthy track.
But what of the mothers who have recently been diagnosed with breast cancer or previously undergone treatment? Although it may be challenging, breastfeeding might still be possible for women in such situations.
Even under the best circumstances, many women find breastfeeding is challenging. Some babies do not take to it as easily, having difficulties latching on. As a mother, it may take a while to grow accustomed to breastfeeding or even for your milk to come in full force. Having breast cancer may make the process even harder. Stress can take its toll on the body, including causing physiological symptoms that can inhibit the production of milk or even make mothers feel less confident in their ability to breastfeed.
It is adviseable for any woman thinking about breastfeeding to enlist the help of a lactation coach or consultant. This can be especially beneficial to women with breast cancer, as lactation coaches are knowledgeable in how to express and store milk. Once a woman has started breastfeeding, she will need to maintain her milk supply, which can be problematic if she has to stop breastfeeding for a period of time due to cancer treatment. The consultant can guide you through the proper procedures, which may include a "pump and dump" process. This will keep the milk coming, but you will be discarding milk that may have been compromised by treatment.
Women with a current cancer diagnosis or those who have had treatment in the past should consult with their obstetricians and oncologists as to whether breastfeeding is adviseable. The doctors may be able to work together on a plan that is acceptable to all parties. If breast cancer is detected in lactating breasts, there may be a temporary interruption in the breastfeeding schedule. Although needle biopsies and other methods of detection can be used to circumvent radiation-based methods of diagnosis, many of the treatments for cancer involve cocktails of medications, chemotherapy or even surgery -- all of which could affect breast milk.
It is important to discuss with your physicians when your milk will be safe again before returning to breastfeeding. Chemotherapy and some types of radiation can leave residual harmful chemicals in the body and breast milk. Surgery may damage milk ducts, causing a compromised supply. Each case varies and will have to be assessed by the health professionals involved.
The good news is that although breast cancer can temporarily derail breastfeeding plans, it doesn't always have to mean weaning a baby from breast milk. Also, there is no evidence that breast milk from a cancer survivor poses any risk to the infant. Many women go on to survive breast cancer and successfully breastfeed.