Breast cancer awareness month has come to a close. I'm sure that many of you know that breastfeeding can significantly reduce our risk of developing pre-menopausal breast cancer. Both my mother and aunt are breast cancer survivors, and this month I scheduled my first mammogram.
But what about women who are already breast cancer survivors by the time they reach their childbearing years? For some women it is indeed possible (for more information on it, check out recent posts on the topic at Breastfeeding 1-2-3).
I knew that breastfeeding after breast cancer was possible, but I'd never talked with anyone who had done it until this month, when another lactation consultant connected me with Paula, a mother of two boys who lives in North Carolina. She graciously shared her story with me, and I'm pleased to be able to share it with you.
One morning in 1992, at age 26, Paula leaned over as she was getting out of bed and felt a strange itch near her collarbone. Soon after she was diagnosed with Stage 1, intraductal breast cancer. She was lucky to have found it early, but it still required a mastectomy (and reconstructive surgery) of that breast. Her wedding was held six weeks after her operation.
In 1995 the cancer recurred on the same side. This time she had additional mass removed and opted for an experimental bone marrow transplant. After weeks in the hospital, she was told that her ovaries were destroyed by the treatments, that she would never have children, and that to prevent further recurrence she should have her ovaries removed.
Paula pushed her doctors to find a way to preserve her ability to have children. Eventually they agreed to the use of a medication which which shut down her ovaries while she took an anti-cancer drug for five years. When she stopped she was told that, at her age, it was unlikely that she would get pregnant.
But within 6 months, at age 35, she was pregnant.
She asked her doctors if she could breastfeed, and they were very positive about her prospects. They were also encouraging because of the reduction in breast cancer risk. Her only concern was whether she could produce enough milk for a baby with one breast.
But she remained committed, and recalls, "I was always very optimistic and positive. Given what my body had already overcome, I couldn't imagine that I would have problems with it."
When she delivered and baby was put on her chest she remembers a nurse saying "you've got great equipment for breastfeeding."
She nursed her first son on one breast exclusively for 6 months, when she weaned in order to prepare to become pregnant again, and nursed her second on one breast exclusively for 5 months before she had to stop due to illness. She had none of the common problems nursing mothers have (thrush, mastitis, soreness).
At first she wondered how it would feel to be different from the other mothers because she was feeding her baby on one breast. But it soon felt natural, and she recalls, "Sometimes I'd see mothers who nursed from both breasts flip-flopping their babies back and forth and I'd think, what a pain!"
Paula credits her success to a willingness to advocate for herself, but most of all to the support of her husband and whole family. "Having the support of my family," she says, "made me feel like there was nothing I couldn't do."