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Keeping cancer at bay through breastfeeding

Feb 03, 2016

With inputs from Dr Shacchee Baweja, OneWorld South Asia takes a closer look at the causes behind rising cancer cases in India to mark the World Cancer Day on February 4.

New Delhi: Why a mother’s first priority should be to nurse her baby with her breastmilk? Here’s the answer. Mother’s milk or breastmilk is not only a wonder tonic for baby’s immunity but it also helps in safeguarding the mother and her child from several chronic diseases.

The yellowish colour milk or colostrum is the most vital baby food as it not only boosts the child’s immunity but also lowers the risk of developing Alzheimer’s in mothers, and also helps to strengthen the developing lungs of the child, thus aiding in reducing the threat of asthma.

However, in the present times, a shift is being observed where mothers are lesser involved in breastfeeding their babies due to difficulty in balancing motherhood and professional life. Skipping this lactation phase seems problematic, as absence or lack of breastfeeding after giving birth puts women at a higher risk of breast cancer, diabetes and many other major health conditions.

The protective effect of breastfeeding in lowering the risk of breast cancer is visible in a number of studies. The risk-reduction appears to be dose-dependent, which implies that the longer the period of breastfeeding, more is the benefit.

World Cancer Research Fund International, in its study mentions that women who breastfeed for at least a year, not necessarily at a stretch, are five percent less likely to develop breast cancer.

The longer a woman breastfeeds, she sets the high hormone levels required for lactation, which affects cell growth by protecting the breast against changes that would otherwise make the breasts vulnerable to breast cancer. In addition, the fact that women cease to ovulate during the time of producing milk also contributes in protection against the possibility of breast or ovarian cancer.

In India, breast cancer rates have relatively been lower in the past but with the changing scenario there has been a sudden rise in the graph among females. Owing to changing lifestyle, late motherhood trends, and succumbing to social and professional stress, women generally tend to avoid breastfeeding, making themselves vulnerable to breast cancer.

Breast cancer accounts for 25 per cent 32 per cent of all cancer cases in females and largely affects women below fifty years of age, that is, 48 per cent of women between ages 20 to 50 years. There is a dire need to spread awareness about the importance of breastfeeding and hold campaigns for the same so that the message reaches out to larger masses.

A recent study by AIIMS (All India Institute of Medical Sciences) and Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) has unveiled that urban working women yield to higher abortions, late reproduction, and shorter periods of breastfeeding and larger consumption of oral contraceptive pills and thus have higher vulnerability to breast and ovarian cancer.

It is to be noted that women who are treated for breast cancer and are fertile could plan again for pregnancy. Studies have revealed that hormones produced during pregnancy and breastfeeding do not initiate or revive breast cancer. Neither will the milk carry any cancer cells.

However, lower risk does not mean no-risk. Some women who breastfeed are also face the likelihood of contracting cancer. Women of all ages must check their breasts for changes-and-lumps and insist that their doctor takes their concerns seriously.

Many women now get pregnant and breastfeed after being treated for breast cancer.

Dr. Shacchee Baweja is a New Delhi-based paediatrician, and a certified member of the International Board of Certified Lactation Consultants (IBCLC).

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