Breastfeeding After Breast Cancer: Every Case Is Different

You’ve had breast cancer and you survived it. Now, after that rough period of time, you are thinking of having a baby or have found out you are pregnant and are wondering if you can breastfeed your child. Everyone knows that breastmilk is best for your baby, but you are in a different situation than most women who are pregnant or planning to be.

Can you breastfeed your baby? Should you breast feed your baby?

There are no one-size-fits-all answers to those questions. The answers depend on many different factors that are specific to you. These factors include: how long ago you were diagnosed, what type of breast cancer you had, and how you were treated for cancer (Surgery? Chemotherapy? Radiation?) Then those factors get further broken down: What kind of surgery did you have? Did you receive radiation? If so, to what parts of your breast, and for how long? What kinds of chemotherapy drugs did you receive? Are you on any ongoing medications such as hormonal therapies or antiestrogen drugs like tamoxifen?

The basic answer to whether you can breastfeed your baby is: Yes, it can be done. Women have been able to successfully breastfeed their babies after they were treated for breast cancer. However, being able to breastfeed is not guaranteed. There may be problems that will need to be solved so that successful breastfeeding happens. It may be that breastfeeding is not the right choice for you.

Surgery for breast cancer involves either a lumpectomy, where the tumor and an area around it is removed, or a mastectomy, where the entire breast is removed. Even women who have had one breast removed have been able to breastfeed from their remaining breast and give their baby enough nutrition. If you had both breasts removed, you will not be able to breastfeed.

If you had a lumpectomy in one breast due to a tumor or cyst, you may still be able to breastfeed from that breast, but it depends on where in the breast the lumpectomy was done and whether the nerves and milk ducts (the tiny tubes that bring the milk from the milk glands in the breast to the nipple) have been cut or damaged.

The rest of the breast may be able to produce milk, and the breast that was not operated on will usually compensate and make more milk for your baby. The non-lumpectomy breast may become bigger so that it can produce more milk.

Radiation can have an effect on how much milk your breasts can produce. If you had radiation to one breast after a lumpectomy, that breast may not be able to produce as much milk as your other breast. Again, your other breast may produce more milk to compensate for this. If you underwent radiation recently, talk to your radiologist or oncologist about breastfeeding.

Chemotherapy can be an obstacle to breastfeeding because these drugs can be passed on to your baby through breast milk. Many of these drugs may take time to be cleared from your body after you stop taking them. You may need to wait a few weeks or more than a month before you can start to breastfeed after you stop taking the medications. Once you have stopped taking them, you should be able to breastfeed.

If you take any medications for breast cancer, talk to your oncologist. Almost all drugs used to treat cancer are contraindicated if you are breastfeeding, which means that either you will need to stop taking the drugs or use formula to feed your baby.

Do not stop any medications on your own. You must talk to your oncologist first. Your oncologist may be able to substitute other medications or let you stop for a while so that you can breastfeed your baby for a few months and then resume your drug treatment.

Even if you are able to produce breast milk, you might not be able to produce enough milk for your growing baby. You can supplement your breast milk with formula and give your baby many of the benefits of breast milk and enough of the nutrition he or she needs.

The bottom line is that breastfeeding after having had breast cancer can be done, but whether you can do it depends on so many factors that there is no blanket rule. You will have to talk with your doctors and other health care professionals, including the oncologists and surgeons who treated you for your cancer, and your child’s pediatrician.

If there are no reasons why you should not breastfeed, but you had any radiation or surgery to your breasts, you would also be wise to talk with a lactation consultant. A lactation consultant can advise you and make suggestions that can increase your chances of success.

Valerie DeBenedette
Valerie DeBenedette is an experienced health and medical writer who lives about an hour north of New York City with a dog that is smaller than her cat. Her work has appeared in magazines, newspapers, newsletters, and on websites. She is a member of the National Association of Science Writers.

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