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Find out how cancer can affect breastfeeding

6 December 2022

Key points:

  • It is essential for women to follow cancer treatment, being able to replace breastfeeding with formula or milk from milk banks.
  • Each case is particular and you should ask your doctor if it is possible to breastfeed the baby.
  • Surgical cancer procedures do not normally affect breastfeeding, but chemical treatments do.

There are many doubts related to the breastfeeding process while the woman has or is treated for cancer. Dr. Andrea Barbero Ibarrola, a gynecologist specializing in oncology at ABC Medical Center, will answer some of the most frequent questions.

Can I breastfeed if I have cancer?

Women with cancer who wish to breastfeed should discuss it with their doctor since everything will depend on the type of cancer they have and the treatment they are receiving.

On the one hand, women with active chemotherapy or immunotherapy treatment should stop breastfeeding, because breast milk will absorb the chemicals and they will affect the newborn.

While surgical or radiation therapy treatment only influences the affected area, so if it is in another part of the body, the breasts will not be affected. If it is breast cancer, the other breast can be used to feed the baby.

Cancer is the leading cause of death worldwide: in 2020, almost 10 million deaths were attributed to this disease.The most common cancers in 2020, in terms of new cases, were breast (2.26 million cases); lung (2.21 million cases); colorectal (1.93 million cases); prostate (1.41 million cases); skin (other than melanoma) (1.20 million cases); and gastric (1.09 million cases).1

It must be considered that patients that undergo radiation therapy to the breast have an increased risk of mastitis, inflammation in the breast tissue that can imply an infection, redness, purulent discharge, or even feeling hot. If so, you should see your treating physician.

How long after chemotherapy can I start breastfeeding?

For women who have already completed chemotherapy treatment, a period of approximately four weeks before starting to breastfeed, as long as you are no longer going to continue receiving this treatment.

What should I do if I am diagnosed with cancer while I am breastfeeding?

Dr. Barbero says that, if during breastfeeding you detect any symptoms or signs related to the appearance of any cancer, whatever the type, you must see a doctor and they will indicate what tests you should perform. It is important to note that none of these tests is contraindicated during pregnancy or breastfeeding.

Timely diagnosis is always essential to achieve good cancer treatment. And in case there is cancer, it must be remembered that cancer treatment is more important than breastfeeding. For the baby’s feeding, in case of not being able to breastfeed, there is formula or also the milk bank, which will ensure the correct nutrition of your child, at times when you will also need to focus on cancer treatment.

Cancers that are frequently diagnosed during pregnancy or breastfeeding are breast cancer, cervical cancer, and hematological cancers such as leukemia or lymphomas, says Dr. Barbero.

At ABC Medical Center’s Obstetrics Center, we can provide you with specialized care. Contact us!

Dra. Andrea Barbero Ibarrola – Gynecologist specializing in oncology at ABC Medical Center
1 https://www.who.int/es/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/cancer

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