Women who survived cancer as children can reap the same health benefits by breastfeeding their babies that other women do, according to a new review.
The review of 44 studies shows that breastfeeding's positive effects on a mother's health — such as increasing her bone density, improving her cholesterol levels and decreasing her cancer risks — also apply to women who had childhood cancer, said study researcher James Klosky, a psychologist at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn.
The lack of health risks of breastfeeding "make us feel justified at this point to encourage them to breastfeed if they're able," Klosky said of cancer survivors.
Klosky and his colleagues examined 44 studies and reviews to assess lasting problems from childhood cancer treatment, and to see whether those effects could affect the ability to breastfeed later. Their analysis was published online Jan. 20 in the Journal of Cancer Survivorship.
Breastfeeding is not for everyone
Not all childhood cancer survivors are capable of breastfeeding, particularly among women who survived breast cancer or radiation. Structural changes to their breasts or the effect of radiation on their pituitary glands have left some of them unable to produce milk.
"Early on, these women didn't know that they might be at risk for not being able to lactate, particularly for their first children," Kosky told MyHealthNewsDaily. "We heard disappointment, or regret, that they weren't able to breastfeed."
Doctors need to be aware that patients who survived a childhood cancer may have trouble breastfeeding, said study researcher Susan Ogg, a research nurse specialist at St. Jude.
Cancer survivors' futures
Research shows breastfeeding can decrease women's risk of developing breast and ovarian cancers, post-menopausal spine and hip fractures, Type 2 diabetes and heart disease, Ogg said.
"Those benefits to healthy moms can also generalize to the cancer survivor population," Ogg told MyHealthNewsDaily.
Advances in medicine are increasing the number of childhood cancer survivors, she noted. A 2003 report from the Institute of Medicine said one in 640 young adults was a survivor of childhood cancer. That means breastfeeding by former cancer patients will become more of an issue in the future, Ogg said.
Ogg said she wants breastfeeding to be established as a healthy behavior for women, just as sunscreen use, healthy diet and exercise are.
"We want general practitioners, OB-GYNs and survivors themselves to feel empowered to take their medical history and be aware of it in the next stage of life when they're in that reproducing stage," Ogg said.
Pass it on: Breastfeeding's benefits for healthy women also apply to women who survived childhood cancer.
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