With 1 in 8 women in the United States developing breast cancer at some point in their lifetime, having this diagnosis possibly complicate a pregnancy or breastfeeding relationship makes a stressful time even more frightening. Many women wonder if they will still be able to breastfeed their babies after a diagnosis with breast cancer. Here is what the research says.
What if I’m diagnosed with breast cancer while I’m pregnant?
Thankfully, only 1 to 2 percent of all breast cancers are diagnosed in pregnant women, so this issue is rare. If breast cancer is diagnosed toward the end of pregnancy, most doctors will recommend immediate surgery (such as a lumpectomy or mastectomy), with or without delivery of the baby via an induction to delay the time between diagnosis and treatment. Additional treatments such as chemotherapy or radiation can be postponed until after birth. In these cases of advanced disease, breastfeeding is not recommended.
If a woman is very early in her pregnancy, recommendations may include terminating the pregnancy to allow her to receive treatment or undergoing surgery while still pregnant and again waiting for additional treatments like chemotherapy and radiation therapy until after she delivers. Again, lactation would not be recommended during these treatments. The most important rule is that all decisions regarding treatment be made in collaboration with the woman’s obstetric provider and cancer team to optimize her and her baby’s outcomes.
What if I’m diagnosed with breast cancer while I’m breastfeeding?
In almost all cases, treatment should begin immediately and weaning is often recommended. However, certain chemotherapies leave a woman’s system in a matter of hours, so pumping could be possible. If surgery is recommended on one breast, the other breast could still produce milk, and so the nursing relationship may not need to be completely abandoned. Discussing your breastfeeding goals with your cancer team is important and an individualized decision will need to be made depending on the details of your cancer.
What if I’ve been diagnosed before and then become pregnant?
For women who’ve had breast cancer, it is usually recommended that they wait three to five years to become pregnant, since that is when the risk of cancer recurrence is highest. Pregnancy hormones can also possibly increase a woman’s risk of recurrence in this time period.
Once pregnant, it’s important to monitor for any recurrences and not to delay appropriate procedures like ultrasounds, mammograms, or biopsies because the woman is pregnant. A lactation consult while pregnant can be helpful to discuss what breastfeeding after breast surgery may look like, and so that a woman can prepare ahead of time for the possibility of needing to supplement or consider alternative feeding methods.
There is a myth that some women have heard that it is dangerous to breastfeed your daughter if you have or had breast cancer, with the thought that some substance or tumor virus in the breastmilk may be passed on and increase a baby’s chance of developing breast cancer herself. This has never been proven and should not be a reason a woman chooses not to nurse her baby.
Reviewed by Dr. Sara Connolly, March 2020
- Breastfeeding after receiving a diagnosis of breast cancer may be possible, depending on your situation.
- Treatments such as chemotherapy or radiation should be postponed until after pregnancy.
- For women who’ve had breast cancer, their highest risk of recurrence is in the first three to five years after diagnosis, so pregnancy should be avoided during this time.
- A lactation consult while pregnant can be helpful to discuss what breastfeeding after a breast cancer diagnosis may look like.