While you may have a long list of the ways how breastfeeding can benefit both you and your little one, there is one and only one, potentially life-saving reason why you must breastfeed: the prevention of breast cancer. Yes, this is no longer a myth but it is now a proven fact that women who breastfeed have lower risks of breast cancer than those who don’t.
According to a study conducted by the Collaborative Group on Hormonal Factors in Breast Cancer, breastfeeding for one or more years reduces a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer by nearly 5%. So if you’re wondering how breastfeeding can reduce the threat of breast cancer, then this blog post is for you. Let’s start with understanding what exactly breast cancer is.
A Sneak Peek into Breast Cancer
Breast cancer, one of the most common causes of cancer deaths in women, starts when breast cells start to grow out of control. As a result, they form a tumor that can be either benign or malignant. Where benign tumors (not dangerous to health) grow slowly and do not spread to other parts of the body, on the contrary, malignant tumors are innately dangerous as they quickly spread beyond the original tumor to distant areas of the body. The term “Breast Cancer” refers to a malignant tumor that is cancerous and develops from the uncontrolled growth of breast cells. There are mainly two types of breast cancer:
- Invasive Ductal Carcinoma (IDC): The most common type of breast cancer, accounting for over 80% of all breast cancer diagnoses. This cancer begins growing in the duct and spreads to the surrounding breast tissues in a very short span of time.
- Invasive Lobular Carcinoma (ILC): Another type of breast cancer that develops from lobules (milk glands) and spreads to the breast tissues which are close by. It accounts for approximately 10-15% of all invasive breast cancers.
Apart from these two types of breast cancers, there are several other sub-types of breast cancer, such as Tubular Carcinoma, Ductal Carcinoma In Situ, and Inflammatory Breast Cancer. These cancers either incorporate characteristics of both above-mentioned cancers or have unknown origins.
How Does Breastfeeding Lower the Risk of Breast Cancer?
Now, let’s come to the main point – how can breastfeeding help a woman keep breast cancer out of her future? Well, according to researchers, there are several prevalent theories about how breastfeeding helps prevent pre and post-menopausal breast cancer:
- Breastfeeding limits your lifetime exposure to hormones like estrogen and progesterone, which are well-known to trigger breast cancer. When you’re breastfeeding, you have fewer menstrual cycles because of various hormonal changes. This leads to less hormone exposure over time and thereby prevents cancer cell growth.
- Breastfeeding sheds your breast tissues, helping you get rid of any cells with potential DNA damage in your breasts. In order to produce breast milk, breastfeeding causes your cells to change or differentiate, which makes them more resistant to cancer-causing mutations. Consequently, neither breast cells are able to act abnormally, nor are there chances of developing breast cancer.
- According to lactation experts, women who nurse their babies live a healthier lifestyle than those who don’t. They take better care of their health by making healthier lifestyle choices, like eating nutritious foods, avoiding alcohol and smoking, exercising, etc. All these lifestyle factors play a vital role in reducing the risk of breast cancer.
Additionally, women who breastfeed do not ovulate so often, which leads to lowering the risk of both ovarian cancer and breast cancer. That’s because the less you ovulate, the less exposure you have to estrogen and mutated cells – the major cause of cancer in women. It’s also worth mentioning here that breastfeeding not only strengthens your child’s immune system but also provides him protection against different types of cancer, including breast, kidney, pancreatic, endometrial, rectal, and esophageal cancers.
How Long Should You Breastfeed to Reduce the Risk?
Now that you’ve understood how breastfeeding helps prevent breast cancer, the next question that might come to your mind is “Does it really matter how long I breastfeed to reduce my risk of breast cancer?” Of course, it matters! While this is a very personal choice, studies show that if a woman breastfeeds for longer than one year in her lifetime, she becomes less susceptible to breast cancer. In other words, the longer you breastfeed, the less likely you’re to develop breast cancer in your lifetime.
However, how much your risk of breast cancer will drop totally depends on the cumulative amount of time you’ve spent breastfeeding throughout your lifetime. For instance, if you had two babies and nursed each for one year, then your cumulative breastfeeding time of two years would serve to cut your risk of developing breast cancer. So, as a general rule, we recommend you breastfeed for at least one year so that both you and your little one could reap the health perks of breastfeeding to the fullest.
What If You Can’t Breastfeed?
Don’t stress about it! If you don’t breastfeed, that doesn’t mean you’ll get breast cancer. While breastfeeding lowers the risk of breast cancer to a large extent, it is not a gold-plated guarantee of protection. In other words, even if you have breastfed enough, you may still develop breast cancer. According to lactation experts, whether or not you breastfeed, your risk of developing breast cancer depends largely on your healthy lifestyle habits – which are in your full control. So if you’re not breastfeeding for any reason, here are a few lifestyle choices that you can make to prevent breast cancer from entering your life:
- Exercise regularly
- Eat nutritious food
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Sleep well – at least 8 hours a day
- Avoid alcohol consumption
- Quit smoking if you do
- Avoid exposure to radiation and environmental pollution
- Limit time spent sitting
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