Monday, February 23, 2009

Breastfeeding Nugget of the Week

One of the crunchy practices that many granola (and not-so-granola) mommies do is breastfeed, and it's a cause that's near and dear to my heart. So instead of writing an introductory post (which would probably be helpful to y'all; I'll do one later, I promise!) I'm going to make my first post into something that I hope I'll do every week - a breastfeeding nugget of the week. Each week (or as close to that as possible) I'll write something to do with breastfeeding - a factoid, a tip, something that's happened in the news lately that pertains to breastfeeding. For many of our readers, some of this may be old hat; for those of you who aren't as well-versed in the ways of lactation, I hope this can be of some help.

Breast cancer is one of the biggest health concerns in the US and western world today, where rates of breast cancer are higher than in developing/undeveloped countries. Those rates are also on the rise in developing countries, probably for a whole host of reasons that are complex and not as simple as declining rates of breastfeeding. In the US, breast cancer is the most common form of cancer amongst women, other than non-melanoma skin cancer.

Now, cancer in general is on the rise amongst our population, and there is much that contributes to this. Longer life spans naturally lead to more problems. Technology is constantly changing, and while many of those changes are good, some of them are not. We put things into our bodies that were never meant to be there, whether through food or through medicines or through the very air we breathe. There are so many possibilities as to what has caused the surge in cancer rates that it is infeasible to point to one thing and say, "Do this to avoid XYZ-type of cancer."

So please forgive me as I seem to do just that. :P

A recent study analyzed the combined data of 47 studies done in 30 countries, giving the researchers information about 50,000 women with breast cancer and 97,000 women in a control group without breast cancer. Their conclusions showed that of those women who had given birth, every year of breastfeeding decreased their risk of developing breast cancer by 4.3%. These percentages held true across the board, whether the woman was young or old, pre- or postmenopausal, whether she lives in a developed country or a developing country (1). The take-away from this is obvious - that the incidences of breast cancer in developed countries are higher because we do not nurse our children, particularly for extended periods of time.

I know, I know; I can hear some of you in the back saying, "Four point three percent? That's, like, barely worth noticing." And you might be right, if it weren't for the fact that that 4.3% is compounding per year that you breastfeed. That can certainly add up to quickly!

It might be that breasts are best protected against cancerous cells developing when they are used in the way that they were designed to be used, with the breast tissue fully developed from breastfeeding (2). It might be that the lack of periods associated with exclusive and extended breastfeeding and the resulting lack of hormonal fluctuations on a regular basis may leave the breasts (and ovaries and uterus) less vulnerable to cancer (3). It might be (and probably is) a combination of both.

But the big statistic worth noticing comes from a 1994 study that shows that women who were breastfeed themselves had at least a 26% less chance of developing breast cancer, and in some cases as much as 31% (4).

That is huge. Absolutely huge. Can you imagine how much lower our rates of breast cancer would be if every single woman breastfed her daughters for one year each? They'd have the protection of themselves being breastfed by their mothers, and then they'd have the additional protecting of actually breastfeeding their own children. The number of lives saved, the number of resources that could shift to focusing on other needs, the amount of money and time and energy saved in medical's staggering to think about.

So yes. We all know that there are many, many reasons to breastfeed, or at least to attempt to breastfeed. But this? We, the women of the world, the mothers of the world, have the ability to directly affect something that is a huge health concern and directly affects mortality rates. We have the ability to change the face of the medical field as we know it, even if we never receive credit for it. This is powerful, and awe-inspiring, and breathtaking.

Let's take this chance, ladies, and change our world!

1) Collaborative Group on Hormonal Factors in Breast Cancer. "Breast cancer and breastfeeding: collaborative reanalysis of individual data from 47 epidemiological studies in 30 countries, including 50,302 women with breast cancer and 96,973 women without the disease." Lancet
2) The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding, 7th Ed. pg 383.
3) The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding, 7th Ed. pg 379.
4) Freudenheim, J. et al. "Exposure to breast milk infancy and the risk of breast cancer." Epidemiology 1994; 5 (3): 324-331.
2002; 360: 187-195.

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