The United States Breastfeeding Committee has designated August as Breastfeeding Awareness Month. The main goal is to encourage conversation and build support for the policy and practice changes necessary to create a landscape of breastfeeding support. While discussing the many benefits of breastfeeding, it’s important to consider its role in reducing cancer risk.
Several research studies have confirmed that a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer is related in part to the exposure of her breast tissue to hormones produced by her ovaries (endogenous estrogen and progesterone), which promote cell growth. Therefore, certain reproductive factors that increase the duration or level of exposure to these hormones have been linked with an increase in breast cancer risk. Specifically, these factors include those that increase the number of menstrual cycles that a woman has over her lifetime, such as early onset of menstruation, late onset of menopause and late first pregnancy (or never becoming pregnant).
On the other hand, because pregnancy and breastfeeding reduce the number of menstrual cycles a woman has over her lifetime, and therefore reduce her cumulative exposure to hormones, these factors have been associated with a decrease in breast cancer risk. Additionally, pregnancy and breastfeeding cause the breast cells to mature (differentiate) so that they can produce milk. Some researchers believe that differentiated breast cells are more able to resist changes that can transform them into cancer cells than their undifferentiated counterparts. In general, breastfeeding for an extended period of time (at least one year) can lead to a decreased risk of developing both hormone receptor positive and hormone receptor negative breast cancers.
There are preventive measures that a woman can take to reduce her risk of developing breast cancer as well. These include exercising regularly, consuming a nutritious diet, maintaining a healthy body weight and avoiding tobacco use. Additionally, women who have an elevated risk of developing breast cancer can take advantage of an advanced Genetic Counseling and Testing Service through the Don & Erika Wallace Comprehensive Breast Program at Moffitt Cancer Center. We offer a number of services designed to help high-risk women better understand their options for risk reduction, early detection and treatment.
If you’d like to learn about your breast cancer risk level, contact Moffitt Cancer Center to request an appointment with an oncologist by calling 1-888-663-3488 or completing a new patient registration form online. Our patients can receive individualized advice, treatment, support and multiple expert opinions in a single location, and we do not require referrals.