Breastfeeding with cancer can be tricky. And depending on your treatment, it can be downright impossible. "For mothers diagnosed with cancer during lactation, they may choose to continue nursing unless their treatment involves chemotherapy or treatment with radioactive compounds," says Anne Smith, an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. "All radioactive materials, taken orally or intravenously, and chemotherapeutic drugs cross into the milk and are potentially toxic to the infant."
Sometimes Only Temporary
But there is hope. Not all women will be treated with chemotherapy. And even those who are have an alternative to a permanent end to breastfeeding. "In some cases, mothers are able to discontinue breastfeeding until the drugs are out of their systems and then resume nursing again," Smith says. "If a nursing mother is diagnosed with any type of cancer, she needs to discuss her feelings about [breastfeeding] and her treatment options with her obstetrician, pediatrician, and oncologist."
According to Ann Calandro, IBCLC, each case of cancer in the breastfeeding mom should be evaluated on an individual basis. In addition, Calandro cites the work of Dr. Thomas Hale, a leading expert in the use of medications in breastfeeding women, as being invaluable to the nursing mother facing cancer testing. "If she is undergoing tests for cancer, there are lists of radioisotopes on Dr. Tom Hale's website that give lengths of time that breastfeeding must be postponed for each particular diagnostic."
But what about women who have been treated specifically for breast cancer? Can they still breastfeed safely? The answer is yes, according to BreastCancer.org, as long as you are no longer being treated with chemo or hormonal therapies. The organization says this is what you can expect after treatment with lumpectomy and radiation:
- Your untreated breast will probably get significantly bigger during the pregnancy than your treated breast. After breastfeeding ends, the breast usually gets back to its pre-pregnancy size. But in some women, it may remain somewhat larger.
- If you had radiation to one breast, it is not likely to produce very much milk, if any.
- Your untreated breast can usually make enough milk to feed a baby. There won't be any harmful elements present in the milk.
Don't Give Up
To nurse or not to nurse has become a sort of mantra for the millennium. Women who don't nurse feel pressure to nurse. Women who nurse feel pressure to wean. And somewhere in between lie the women who simply can't nurse. Despite all the confusion, you can rest assured that there are simply very few medical reasons that contraindicate breastfeeding. In other words, overwhelming odds for a healthy, happy nursing relationship are in your favor.