Breastfeeding Lowers Your Risk of Breast Cancer

A notable health benefit for nursing moms

Breastfeeding is healthy for your baby and a wonderful way to bond with them. It's has also been shown to lower a woman's risk of breast cancer due to its positive effects on hormones, damaged cells, and genes that either fuel or help protect one from the disease.

Furthermore, breastfed babies may have a reduced risk of childhood illnesses as well certain cancers later in life.

How Breastfeeding Lowers Your Risk

There are several theories about how breastfeeding can protect you from developing breast cancer. A 2017 review of 18 studies on the subject presents several possible explanations for the association:

  • Breastfeeding delays when women start menstruating again after giving birth. This reduces lifetime exposure to hormones such as estrogen, which are linked to an increased risk of estrogen receptor-positive forms of breast cancer. Interestingly, studies also indicate that breastfeeding also protects against hormone receptor-negative breast cancers, including triple-negative breast cancer, which generally has a poorer prognosis than other subtypes of the disease.
  • During and after lactation (which refers specifically to milk production in the breast), the breast sheds a lot of tissue. In doing so, the body may also get rid of cells with damaged DNA that can give rise to cancer.
  • Breastfeeding may cause changes to the expression of certain genes in breast cells that make them more resistant to cancer-related mutations.

How Long Should You Breastfeed?

While this is a very personal decision, it is believed that breastfeeding for one-and-a-half to two years over your lifetime will reduce your risk of breast cancer, regardless of your age or menopausal status.

Among the 18 studies reviewed in the aforementioned 2017 report, 13 evaluated the effect of length of breastfeeding on cancer risk and concluded that for every five months of breastfeeding, there is a 2% lower risk of breast cancer.

Research also suggests that children who are breastfed may have a reduced risk of developing certain cancers. A study in JAMA Pediatrics, for example, found that children who are breastfed for six months or longer may have a lower incidence of childhood leukemia.

Another study, a meta-analysis published in 2016, looked at breastfeeding rates in low-, middle-, and high-income countries. Women in lower-income countries are more likely to breastfeed and for longer than those in wealthier regions. For nursing women, breastfeeding gave protection against breast cancer and possibly ovarian cancer and type 2 diabetes.

The research also found that breastfeeding may reduce infections in children, as well as malocclusion of the teeth and diabetes.

Ultimately, the researchers postulated that increasing rates and duration of breastfeeding in all countries, regardless of income, could prevent 823,000 annual deaths in children younger than five and 20,000 annual deaths from breast cancer.

The World Health Organization recommends that women breastfeed exclusively for a minimum of six months before introducing solid foods. This is a general recommendation, however, and unrelated to breast cancer prevention.

Know that even if you have several pregnancies and breastfeed each baby, you may still develop breast cancer. Simply having breast tissue alone puts you at risk of breast disease.

Perform a monthly breast self-exam to check for changes in your breasts, and keep in mind that most lumps are not cancerous. Benign lumps can be caused by a plugged milk duct, cyst, abscess, or fibroadenoma.

A Word From Verywell

While there are established health benefits of breastfeeding, including reduced risk of breast cancer for mothers, how you choose to feed your child depends on several important factors. The best choice is the one you feel is right for both you and your baby. Breastfeeding challenges are more common than you may think and can derail the best efforts of even the most committed-to-nursing moms. Be kind to yourself as you navigate the best path forward.

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