By Jessica Sillers
When most moms talk about struggling with breastfeeding, they mean sore nipples, a tricky latch, or even an infection like mastitis. Some new mothers, however, face a much more overwhelming challenge: a breast cancer diagnosis. Welcoming a new baby and balancing life with a newborn with life with cancer is a daunting prospect. If you hoped to breastfeed, you may be wondering if that option is still on the table. Every woman is different, but you can use these strategies to gain information on your breastfeeding potential with breast cancer.
Get Your Care Team Together
Facing cancer is a journey, not a single event. When you receive your breast cancer diagnosis, you’ll also meet a group of health care professionals who will offer treatment and support. This group may include medical oncologists, nurse practitioners, mental health professionals, nutritionists, rehab care doctors and nurses, and more.
Meanwhile, as a new parent, you’re getting to know your baby’s pediatrician, pediatric nurses, lactation consultants, and others.
Most breast lumps during breastfeeding aren’t cancer-related. Nursing mothers only account for about 3 percent of breast cancer cases, but although rare, discovering cancer while breastfeeding does happen sometimes. The more open you can be with every member of your and your baby’s care team about your breastfeeding goals, the more they can work with you to determine the treatment options that are best for you and your newborn.
Finding a mental health professional you trust is essential, too. A cancer diagnosis or new parenthood on its own can easily be mentally and emotionally overwhelming. Combining them, especially when the cancer is in a part of your body that you hoped would nurture your new baby, can make anyone feel about to crumble. A psychologist or psychiatrist can help you process emotions and look for signs of postpartum depression, among other challenges.
Can Nursing and Breast Cancer Coexist?
Working out a breastfeeding plan during cancer treatment depends a lot on your particular case. It’s important to remember that your health needs to come first. Delaying or refusing the best treatment options to combat your disease for the sake of breastfeeding longer is ultimately bad for you and your little one. Your child wants you, not just your ability to lactate, so taking the best care of yourself that you can is a gift to both of you.
With that in mind, you’ll need to talk to your medical team to learn which course is best, and what the particular details of your case are. In many cases, though, you can expect breastfeeding options to look something like this:
- During diagnostic tests: Generally yes, you can breastfeed. Some tests, like mammograms, are a little harder to read on a lactating breast, but your doctor may not require you to wean (it would take a while for your supply to disappear, anyway). Tests like biopsies and X-rays also don’t generally require you to stop nursing.
- If the recommended treatment is surgery: Sometimes breastfeeding is still okay. Lactation can make surgery more challenging, since the surgeon will have to work with actively producing milk ducts. Some surgeons might be comfortable working out a plan that lets you nurse, while other surgeons (or more complicated surgeries) might require you to wean. If you do need to wean, you can and should still ask surgeons about surgical options that could limit damage to your milk ducts for future breastfeeding.
- If you’ll have radiation or chemotherapy: You cannot breastfeed when you’re undergoing chemotherapy or radiation treatment, as harmful chemicals can make their way to the baby. Depending on factors like treatment length, severity, and other conditions, you may be able to pump to maintain a supply. This would entail “pumping and dumping,” or discarding any milk that might be contaminated with chemicals used to treat your cancer. Once you have your doctor’s okay, you could potentially resume feeding your baby pumped milk or breastfeeding, if that’s your goal.
If possible, try to reduce breastfeeding over the course of a few weeks. An abrupt stop to breastfeeding can lead to engorgement and mastitis, which can delay your doctors from beginning some cancer treatments.
- Work with a lactation specialist if you can. They can write out a nursing or pumping schedule for you to decrease your milk supply gradually and minimize engorgement.
- Pump just enough to relieve discomfort. As your body realizes you are not emptying the breast, milk supply goes down. If your doctor says it’s okay, you can store the smaller amount you’re still pumping and give it to your baby.
- Use cabbage compresses or hot showers to relieve soreness.
- Keep the rest of feeding time the same. Weaning has a strong emotional component, for you and your baby. Give yourself plenty of skin-to-skin contact, hold your baby in your favorite position, and continue the bonding activities you love (singing, rocking, snuggling, eye contact) even if you’re not directly breastfeeding.
Nursing After Cancer
Ideally, the combination of your efforts, your medical care team’s plans, and a fair degree of luck will enable you to breastfeed once your cancer treatments are finished. We’ll dive into the details of what to expect soon, but here’s your overview in the meantime:
- If you’re able to breastfeed, you’re more likely to encounter challenges. Surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation can all interfere with your body’s ability to produce milk in the future.
- With that said, the right support and techniques can help you nurse as much as possible for you.
- If breastfeeding isn’t an option anymore, you may still be able to have a breastfed baby. Ask the hospital where you plan to give birth for information about breast milk donation for your new baby.
Both cancer and new parenthood can benefit from a “one day at a time” mentality. Parents combining cancer treatment and baby care carry an unusually heavy load, but your care team will do everything they can to support you and your family. If you’re able to breastfeed through all or part of your cancer journey, it may be a source of strength and comfort for you. If it’s adding stress, or your treatment plan isn’t nursing-compatible, don’t feel guilty about quitting. Taking care of your own health is a powerful way to care for your family, too.
Ameda strives to present you with accurate and useful breastfeeding information. This article may contain information and ideas that are not necessarily the views of Ameda. It does not constitute medical advice. If you have any questions please contact your healthcare professional.