Breastfeeding one's baby can reduce by up to 59
percent the risk of breast cancer in women who have a family history of
the disease, including those who have inherited the BRCA1 or BRCA2
mutation that is more commonly found in Jewish women in Israel and
abroad, according to research published Monday in the prestigious
Archives of Internal Medicine.
major study - by obstetrics and gynecology Prof. Alison Stuebe and
colleagues of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of
Medicine - can provide relief to women in such a situation who have
reduced their risk of the cancer only by undergoing frequent
examinations by their doctors or undergoing prophylactic surgery to
remove their breasts.
It follows numerous studies that show breastfeeding reduces the
risk of breast cancer among women in general. But having a family
history of breast cancer, especially being the carrier of a BRCA
mutation, can raise the lifetime risk beyond that of other women by as
much as 80 percent.
Among women with a mother or sister with breast cancer, the
researchers found that those who had breastfed were less than half as
likely to develop premenopausal breast cancer as those who had not
For women with a family history, the reduction in
risk with breastfeeding was similar to taking an anti-estrogen drug
such as Tamoxifen for five years. But unlike Tamoxifen, Stuebe says,
"Breastfeeding is good for mothers and for babies."
Stuebe and colleagues reviewed data from the Nurses' Health
Study II, a long-term study of more than 100,000 women from 14 US
states. Stuebe's study followed more than 60,000 women who reported at
least one pregnancy in 1997, when breastfeeding was assessed in detail,
and followed them through 2005 to determine how many developed invasive
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long a woman breastfed seemed to be less important than whether or not
she had breastfed, Stuebe says. The reduction in risk was similar
whether women breastfed for a lifetime total of three months or for
more than three years. Also, there was no significant difference in
risk for women who breastfed exclusively versus those who breastfed
while supplementing with other foods.
"At last - a positive study that is a continuation of the
research of many years" that shows that breastfeeding is beneficial to
mothers without a family history, commented Wendy Blumfield of the
Israel Childbirth Education Center.
"One of the theories is that menstruation usually resumes later
after delivery when a woman is lactating and that the resulting fewer
menstrual cycles in itself reduces the hormonal upheaval that can
contribute to the risk of breast, ovarian and uterine cancers. The
theory mentioned in this study, that women who do not breastfeed have a
greater tendency to infections and breast inflammation in the days and
weeks following birth is also plausible.
"When one reflects that lactation is the natural conclusion to
the hormonal changes of pregnancy and birth, it is logical that this
would contribute to the future health of the mother."
Blumfield added one word of caution.
"Inflammatory breast disease in premenopausal women is easily
masked if a woman is still or has recently stopped breastfeeding. In my
work I have unfortunately heard of women who have presented symptoms to
their doctors, only to be brushed off with an explanation that they are
caused by engorgement or other breastfeeding changes that in themselves
are quite benign. So without unduly scaring women who are worried about
unusual changes in the breasts that do not resolve themselves within a
few days, I would urge them to get a thorough check at a breast clinic
or with a qualified breast specialist."
Commenting on the new research, the Israel Cancer Association
said it endorses the recommendation of breastfeeding not only for
babies' health but also to help protect the mothers against breast
The ICA noted that the increasingly lower age at the onset of
menstruation among girls in Western countries - due to improper diet
and inadequate exercise - raises the risk of eventual breast cancer,
and that when girls reach adulthood and give birth, they should nurse
their babies if possible to cut their risk.
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