By Dr Tejal Deshmukh
Breastfeeding is a natural and cherished bond between a mother and her newborn, and has long been recognised for its nutritional and emotional benefits for infants. However, recent research has unveiled a hidden gem within this maternal act – a potential shield against one of the most prevalent and feared diseases affecting women worldwide: breast cancer. While breastfeeding is primarily associated with infant health, a growing body of evidence suggests that women who breastfeed may also experience significant health advantages, including a reduced risk of breast cancer.
Breastfeeding can significantly lower the risk of both premenopausal and postmenopausal breast cancer. In fact, breastfeeding for 12 months has been found to reduce the risk of breast cancer by 4.3 per cent. The risk reduction is even more significant, at 33 percent, if breastfeeding is continued for 2 years consistently.
Is there any link between breastfeeding and breast cancer?
Yes, there is a link between breastfeeding and breast cancer. It has been seen that breastfeeding can have a protective effect against breast cancer in women. This link is primarily attributed to the hormonal and physiological changes that occur during breastfeeding.
When a woman breastfeeds, her body undergoes hormonal changes that temporarily disrupt the menstrual cycle. This disruption leads to a decrease in the levels of oestrogen and progesterone, two hormones that can promote the growth of certain types of breast cancer.
In addition to those hormonal changes, breastfeeding also leads to physical changes in the breast tissue. During lactation, the breast sheds cells and tissue as part of the milk production process. This shedding of cells may help eliminate cells with potential DNA damage, reducing the likelihood of cancerous cell transformation.
Five benefits of breastfeeding to mother
Breastfeeding offers a multitude of health benefits to mothers, extending well beyond the nurturing bond it creates with their infants.
Reduced Risk of Breast Cancer: Perhaps one of the most significant health benefits, breastfeeding has been associated with a decreased risk of breast cancer.
Postpartum Weight Loss: Breastfeeding requires additional energy expenditure, which can aid mothers in shedding the weight gained during pregnancy.
Uterine Contraction and Involution: Breastfeeding triggers the release of oxytocin, a hormone that stimulates uterine contractions.
Delayed Return of Menstrual Cycles: Breastfeeding delays the resumption of regular menstrual cycles due to the temporary suppression of ovulation.
Reduced Risk of Ovarian Cancer: Breastfeeding has been associated with a lower risk of ovarian cancer, a particularly challenging form of cancer to detect and treat.
While breastfeeding establishes a profound connection between mothers and their infants, its impact on women’s health transcends the realm of nurturing alone.
Embrace Prolonged Breastfeeding Duration: The protective effect of breastfeeding against breast cancer risk is dose-dependent – the longer you breastfeed, the greater the potential benefit. It aims to breastfeed exclusively for at least six months, followed by continued breastfeeding alongside complementary foods for up to two years or more.
Prioritise Early and Frequent Breastfeeding: Initiate breastfeeding as soon as possible after childbirth. The early stages of breastfeeding trigger the release of colostrum, a nutrient-rich fluid that offers immune-boosting benefits for both mother and baby.
Maintain a Healthy Lifestyle: While breastfeeding provides valuable health benefits, complement it with a healthy lifestyle. Engage in regular physical activity, maintain a balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins, and manage stress effectively.
Avoid Tobacco and Limit Alcohol: Smoking and excessive alcohol consumption have been linked to an increased risk of breast cancer.
Therefore, it is very important to understand how breastfeeding serves as a natural defence that can guide personal choices and medical interventions. By embracing breastfeeding as a multifaceted strategy, women can actively participate in reducing their breast cancer risk.
Moreover, the act of breastfeeding transcends its immediate physiological impact. It fosters a cascade of cellular repair mechanisms, fortifying the breast tissue against genetic mutations and oxidative stress.
(The author is a consultant in the department of Obstetrics & Gynaecology, Manipal Hospital, Baner, Pune , Maharashtra)
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