As I sit waiting for the results, I pray for just one more year of good news. Given my family history—my mother and grandmother both had breast cancer—my annual mammogram is the one appointment that I never postpone. While it’s true that many factors play a role in breast cancer’s development, when it comes to prevention, breastfeeding is one of the best things a woman can do.
The empirical evidence is absolutely staggering. In the UK, cancer researchers found that the relative risk of breast cancer decreased by 4.3% for every 12 months of breastfeeding and an additional 7% for each child born. Another study found that among women who had an immediate family member with breast cancer (such as a mom or sis), those who breastfed had a 59% lower risk of developing premenopausal breast cancer.
Across cultures we see the results and know that government policies can affect women’s health. We know that China, notorious for its one-baby policy, has a breast cancer rate of 1 in 6, compared to the United States’ breast cancer rate of 1 in 8. Meanwhile, in developed countries where breastfeeding rates are higher and women breastfeed for longer durations, such as Japan, the breast cancer rates are much lower.
The breastfeeding-breast cancer connection is believed to be caused by the suppressed levels of estrogen during pregnancy and durations of breastfeeding. Thus, the longer you do it, the more protected you are.
And incredibly, the connection doesn’t stop there. Studies suggest that breastfeeding can even lower your baby girl’s risk of developing breast cancer in her lifetime by 26-31%. Reducing your odds and hers – now that’s priceless.
When my first daughter was born, my life immediately changed. I started eating healthier and exercising. It was no longer about thin thighs; it was about longevity, because I wanted to be here for my children as long as possible. Luckily, I received the support that I needed to successfully breastfeed my four children. And, while nothing is foolproof, I pray that my efforts were enough to turn the tables on fate and beat the genetic odds stacked against me. A few quick calculations reveal that by breastfeeding four children for 14 months each, I dropped my own odds by more than 20% and reduced my daughters’ odds by even more.
Science is advancing and bringing new detection methods and treatment options annually, but one of the best things we can do as mothers is to be educated about what factors are in our control. Healthy lifestyle and balanced diet both play an important role, but so does breastfeeding. And as mothers, we need to be doing all we can to lower our risk (and our daughters’) and ensure we’ll be here to raise our children for years to come.