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Breast-Feeding May Reduce Cancer Risk, Study Finds

August 13, 2009 07:30 AM
by Jill Marcellus
A new study suggests that high-risk women could evade breast cancer by breast-feeding their children, adding to a growing chorus of medical professionals touting breast-feeding’s benefits.

Reducing Risk

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By breast-feeding their children, premenopausal women with a family history of breast cancer could lower their risk of developing the disease by 59 percent, according to University of North Carolina researchers. As The News & Observer reports, that would make breast-feeding more effective than preventative doses of Tamoxifen, an anti-cancer drug. 

Published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, the study analyzed cancer development in over 60,000 participants in a Harvard Nurses’ Health Study, for which they had reported their breast-feeding habits between 1997 and 2005. 

In a departure from previous research linking breast-feeding to reduced breast cancer risk, the new study did not find a significant effect for women with no family history of the disease. For women whose immediate family had experienced breast cancer, breast-feeding reduced risk equally, regardless of whether or not they supplemented with milk formula or stopped breast-feeding after a short period of time. 

In light of this, Dr. Louise Brinton of the National Cancer Institute urged caution in drawing conclusions from the study, telling The New York Times that “[y]ou would expect to see a dose-response relationship with breast-feeding if it is a really causal protective factor.” Other critics point out that women who breast-feed often have higher educational and economic statuses, raising the possibility that different environmental factors are responsible for both breast-feeding and cancer prevention.

The study also found that high-risk women who used drugs to suppress lactation were at lower risk than those who neither breast-fed nor took the drugs, suggesting that the development of breast cancer may be connected to post-birth breast engorgement, according to the lead author of the study, Dr. Alison Stuebe.

Ultimately, Dr. Stuebe insists, “The bottom line is this is really good news for women with a history of breast cancer.”

Background: Previous studies of breast-fed benefits

Last summer, a study by Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center found that breast-feeding for six months or more reduced the mother’s risk of developing luminal cancer and triple negative cancer, findingDulcinea reported. Triple negative cancer is a particularly aggressive type, and common among young African Americans and Hispanics. While researchers have debated whether genes or environment incline African American women toward the most aggressive cancers, UNC’s Robert Millikan noted that white women are more likely to breast-feed than black women.

Breast-feeding’s potential benefits for mothers may extend beyond breast cancer prevention. Other studies have determined that “women who breast-fed are less likely to develop osteoporosis and ovarian cancer, as well as high blood pressure and heart disease decades later,” according to The New York Times.

The Children’s Hospital Boston outlines the benefits for children, including breast milk’s anti-infective properties and nutrients that influence development.

Related Topic: Public Displays of Lactation

Dr. Stuebe emphasized that “breastfeeding is good for mothers and for babies,” but a hostile culture may inhibit mothers. Traditionally, many hospitals have given formula samples to new mothers, but findingDulcinea reported last year that, due to concerns that they discourage breast-feeding, those policies may be under review. Many mothers feel that a stigma surrounds breast-feeding in public, with new mothers heckled or asked to stop, and working mothers facing additional hurdles. These concerns prompted the Kentucky legislature earlier this year to introduce a bill that would fine people who interfere with a breast-feeding woman, according to the Lexington Herald-Leader.
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