When you read the breastfeeding experiences of black mothers on sites like mochamanual.com, or listen to other moms speak in support of breastfeeding, it’s easy to understand the joys some mothers experience. In addition to the emotional bonding and the health benefits, it’s also a cost-effective way to nourish a new baby.
But, outside of the women who make a decision not to breastfeed, there is also a group of women who would like to, but can’t. Sometimes it’s mechanical and the baby can’t latch correctly. Other times, health reasons get in the way.
Breast cancer survivors are one such group for whom breastfeeding can be a challenge, even long after they’re in remission. Depending on the treatment, some breast cancer survivors will lose the ability to breastfeed any children they have in the future.
But not all.
For example, after mastectomy, if only one breast is removed, women can breastfeed from the other breast.
“If she’s making milk, she has a functional breast,” explains Dr. Virginia R. Lupo, chair of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Hennepin County Medical Center.
However, radiation to a breast or surgery to remove a lump that cuts through the milk ducts may disrupt the ability of that breast to create milk.
“Breastfeeding after surgery also depends on the location of the surgical scars, whether the scars are where the mouth goes,” says Dr. Sharon Mass, an obstetrician-gynecologist in private practice in Morristown, NJ and representative on the U.S. Breastfeeding Committee. “[But, treatment] doesn’t always preclude breastfeeding.”
Both Mass and Lupo agree that breastfeeding after cancer doesn’t harm the baby. However, the concept of breastfeeding during active treatment, especially chemotherapy, is a concern.
According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, most sources do not consider breastfeeding an option during any type of chemotherapy because it transfers into the milk.
Some who breastfeed after having cancer worry that the hormones will lead to cancer in the other breast. But, Lupo assures them that breastfeeding does not affect their cancer prognosis.
An option for women who cannot breastfeed, but want their child to have the benefits, is to use human donor breast milk banks. Lactating women pump their breast milk and donate it to the bank for other mothers to use.
Thirteen U.S. states now have human breast milk banks. Canada has two. North American banks tend to give the milk to premature babies or multiples — twins, triplets, quadruplets — whose mothers cannot breastfeed adequately. However, children of breast cancer survivors could also benefit.
Lupo remains hopeful, though, and encourages women to attempt breastfeeding, even after treatment. “You never know until you try,” she says.
Dr. Tyeese Gaines is a physician-journalist with over 10 years of print and broadcast experience, now serving as health editor for theGrio.com. Dr. Ty is also a practicing emergency medicine physician in New Jersey. Follow her on twitter at @doctorty.