Ask Sheila: Can I Breastfeed After Breast Cancer?


Melissa asks, “I am seven months pregnant and expecting our third child. I was able to breastfeed my other two for over two years without any issues after the initial learning curve for both babies. My concern is five years ago I was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a lumpectomy on my right side along with radiation therapy. My unaffected side has changed during this pregnancy, but the side that had the treatments has only changed a little. What are the chances I will able to successfully breastfeed this time around? My doctor was pretty discouraging and felt that the chances were slim that there would be success. What are your experiences?”


Melissa you are an inspiration to other women. The fact that you have survived breast cancer, and been able to have a third pregnancy is wonderful. I have worked with many women who have been in your situation. The good news is the majority of these women do great and are able to have a fulfilling breastfeeding experience. I suggest doing skin to skin contact right after birth and getting as much breast stimulation early on as possible through nursing and pumping. By doing extra stimulation, it will help you boost the hormone levels that tell your body to make more milk and it will take advantage of the body’s ability to create more prolactin receptors. Also, being proactive like you are and educating yourself is the best defense. Taking measures to help boost your supply can be implemented earlier than later, thus giving you a better chance of success.

I would also recommend letting the hospital staff know what your concerns are right away and I would ask to meet with an experienced board certified lactation consultant daily while in the hospital to ensure things are going well. If they are unable to provide you with that, I would suggest hiring your own lactation consultant to coach you during those early days to help you get off to the best start. In rare cases the side treated with radiation can have more damage from improper latching, because that tissue can be more fragile from the treatments. The typical scenario is that the breast that has not been treated becomes the producer and takes over for both sides, in essence that breast becomes the super breast! Many moms report that the breast that was treated, especially with radiation can produce milk, but in much lower amounts. Many moms use that breast as the one for calming the baby after a feeding. The fact that you were able to successfully nurse your first two is on your side. Your breasts have had the opportunity to develop the milk producing tissue twice already. This is the reason why moms usually produce more milk with each new baby. Your milk also comes in faster because you have already developed milk producing tissue. Breastfeeding is more than just nutrition; the nurturing aspect is often forgotten.

For our mothers who have had radiation treatment and surgery to both sides can still breastfeed, but usually with the use of a supplemental nursing system. This is a device that delivers milk to the baby through a small tube that is taped to the breast. Both the mom and baby are able to experience the benefits of breastfeeding, even if the milk supply is low or absent. This device is often used with adoptive moms who want to breastfeed. The other option for mothers with low supply is to talk to their doctors about getting a prescription for human milk from a licensed milk bank that thoroughly screens, pasteurizes and tests all donations, such as the Mother’s Milk Bank in San Jose. That way a mom with a compromised supply can ensure that she is able to provide human milk for her baby, even if it is for a few weeks.


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