Doctors: Breastfeeding is ‘natural’ way to reduce the odds of cancer

Margaret Wasser, a registered nurse and lactation specialist at Conemaugh Memorial Medical Center in Johnstown (left) talks with Alyssa Conway and her husband Paul, both of Altoona, about properly breastfeeding their baby, Paul Jr., 5 weeks, at the hospital’s Regional Intensive Care Nursery on Sept. 21, 2017.

Experts have found few measures that can reduce the risk of breast cancer.

Healthy living habits associated with overall health and wellness have shown some benefit in preventing breast cancer, but the lifestyle changes can be difficult to maintain.

However, there is one recommendation for new mothers that’s a natural, experts say. Evidence continues to show benefits of breastfeeding for both baby and mother.

Many people may not know that breastfeeding also reduces mothers’ risk for breast cancer.

“Women who breastfeed have less estrogen, and estrogen is linked to breast cancer,” nurse Margaret Wasser, said from Conemaugh Memorial Medical Center in Johnstown.

“When your estrogen is on the lower end, the risk of breast cancer decreases.”

Wasser is one of four lactation consultants at Memorial. 

They teach new mothers about the health benefits of breastfeeding, help them overcome any issues and encourage the mothers to nurse babies for at least six months.

“Breastfeeding is best for baby and mom,” Wasser said. 

“It’s natural, and breast milk has a lot of antibodies that babies need in the first days of life.”

 

The American Cancer Society cites evidence that breastfeeding for at least one year decreases the risk of breast cancer.

There are several other risk-reduction benefits associated with pregnancy, according to the society’s website:

• Women who have their first pregnancies at an early age are less likely to develop hormone receptor–positive breast cancer later in life.

Those whose first full-term pregnancy come before age 20 have half the risk of women who have their first pregnancy after age of 30.

• The risk of breast cancer declines with the number of births. Women with five or more children have half the risk of women who never have children.

Having the first pregnancy after age 30, however, will increase the risk of breast cancer.

Dr. Debra Sims, breast surgeon at Joyce Murtha Breast Care Center in Windber, said the pregnancy benefits are part of the woman’s lifetime exposure to hormones generated during menstruation.

“Risk goes up with how long you have unopposed cycles,” Sims said, explaining that women who had their first cycle at an early age and those with late menopause have slightly more risk.

The two most significant risk factors for breast cancer – growing older and being female – are not controllable, Sim said. 

The odds of developing breast cancer at age 30 is 1 in 227. By age 70, it’s 1 in 26. And at age 90, the chance is 1 in 8.

There are some lifestyle changes that can help reduce the odds, Sims said, and they include familiar advice.

“Avoid stress; eat smart; don’t smoke,” she said.

“It is the same for breast cancer. It’s like seatbelts. Everybody knows you are supposed to wear one, but do we?” 

Randy Griffith is a multimedia reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at 532-5057. Follow him on Twitter @PhotoGriffer57.