It is widely known that breast milk has a host of benefits for the newborn baby. It is the better nutritional choice over baby formula. Breastfeeding is the ideal way to deliver breast milk to the baby but if it has to be expressed and bottle fed then it is still a better choice over baby formula. However, many mothers do not realize that breastfeeding can be beneficial for their health as well. Various studies have shown that breastfeeding can reduce the risk of cancer, not only of the breast but also of the uterus and ovarian cancer.
How does breast cancer develop?
The exact cause of most cancers are not clearly understood. But the problem primarily lies with defects in the genes of breast cells. Normally the genes determine the structure and growth rate of cells. However, when certain genes are damaged the cells become abnormal in structure and divide rapidly. The cancerous cells invade healthy tissue and destroy it. The greater risk is when these cancer cells break away from the site of origin and travel to other areas in the body. In this way there can be cancer in various organs although the cancerous growth originated in the breast.
A family history of breast cancer, cigarette smoking, radiation exposure and the use of certain hormonal medication are known risk factors. But there many instances where breast cancer arises in women who are considered low risk. Advances in medical science are regularly uncovering new risk factors and it is now known that certain dietary factors, obesity, a sedentary lifestyle, some skin applications and even pollution may increase the risk of developing breast cancer.
Effects of Breastfeeding on Cancer Risk
Sometimes the results of various studies can be confusing and may not substantiate the findings of other research studies. It has been found that breastfeeding for only a few months may not have any significant effect on breast cancer risk. However, women who tend to breastfeed for one and a half to two years have a slightly lower risk of developing breast cancer as compared to women who do not breastfeed or only breastfeed for 6 months or less. Despite it being a small benefit, it is nevertheless a reduction in the risk of developing breast cancer.
The exact mechanism by which breastfeeding reduces breast cancer risk is not full known. It is believed to be due to the changes in hormone levels associated with breastfeeding. The longer a woman breast feeds, the greater the benefit in reducing cancer risk. Although most health authorities advise breast milk as the only source of nutrition for the first 6 months of a baby’s life, this does not mean that breastfeeding should be stopped after 6 months. There is no reason to stop breastfeeding even once the infant is eating solids although breast milk may not be the primary source of nutrition after 6 months.
Other Health Benefits
Mothers need to be made aware of these advantages and motivated to breastfeed both for the baby’s benefit and their own. Apart from breast cancer, breastfeeding can also:
- reduce the severity of osteoporosis later in life
- promote weight loss after childbirth
- help with minimizing postpartum depression
The benefits in reducing the risk of cancer also extends to malignancies of the ovaries and uterus.