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How to Successfully Breastfeed After Breast Cancer Treatment

Mother in white top breastfeeding her child in a white onesie,

As I’ve explained before, breastfeeding protects against breast cancer. But YES, it’s absolutely possible to breastfeed after having breast cancer. True, the treatment you’ve had will affect your experience. But unless you’ve had a double mastectomy, you can breastfeed, at least to some extent. Here are 7 ways to help you breastfeed after breast cancer treatment.

Know what’s safe if you plan to breastfeed after breast cancer treatment

Chemotherapy, or long-term medications such as tamoxifen, aromatase inhibitor, or trastuzumab are not safe for the breastfeeding mother and infant. However, as we learned from Ciera Devine, even the long-term medications can be interrupted long enough to conceive and breastfeed.

If you need to stop and start your medications as described above, you’ll need to ask your doctor about the timetable. When should you stop breastfeeding, and when can you resume?

Know the effects of radiation

Several studies have shown that very little milk is produced after the breast has been exposed to radiation.

But understand one important point. Although it is likely that the irradiated breast will produce little (if any) milk, the milk from that side is safe.

In some cases, the breast tissue may nearly disappear, but the nipple will remain intact. The condition is called amazia.

Learn about lumpectomy incisions

Whether you can breastfeed after having had a lumpectomy depends on the location of the incision. However, in general, if the 4th intercostal nerve has been severed in any way, lactation is unlikely to be successful on the affected side.

Consider using only one side if you want to breastfeed after breast cancer

Some women — with or without a history of cancer — have used only one breast (“unilateral” breastfeeding) to feed their children. That’s certainly an option. My recent guest, Olivia Pagani, MD, shared that many patients are not offered unilateral breastfeeding as an option.

Carmune and colleagues showed that unilateral breastfeeding produced enough milk to satisfy an infant. And, a case report from Barco and colleagues showed that unilateral breastfeeding, without the aid of galactogogues or formula, was possible for some nursing couplets.

Be assured that the milk from either breast is safe should you plan to breastfeed after breast cancer treatment. And with adequate support and perhaps special techniques (such as pumping) there’s a high likelihood that enough milk can be produced if using only one breast. It seems easy for professionals to say, “Oh, just go ahead and use one breast.” But honestly, that is more easily said than done. Gorman and colleagues described five different themes from women who were doing unilateral breastfeeding. Nearly all described unilateral breastfeeding as “exhausting.”

Use the pump to increase milk supply

Whether you’ve had chemotherapy, radiation, or surgery, your milk-making apparatus still behaves in a way similar to that of other mothers. Your milk will “come in” on both breasts.

One way to increase stimulation is to use the breast pump. You could also accomplish the stimulation through hand expression.

Learn how to improve your comfort

Feeding from only one breast can create two possible problems.

First, unilateral breastfeeding is often related to nipple soreness, especially in the early days. Getting flawless positioning and latch, which is important for every mother, is critical in this situation where unilateral breastfeeding is highly likely.

There are dozens or perhaps hundreds of suggestions for what to use on sore nipples. Even the most popular ones have not proven to increase healing, but applying milk onto the nipple may be among the best solutions (and certainly, the cheapest!) for sore nipples.

Second, remember that the affected breast may become engorged, and leak some milk. Generally, it’s helpful to use ice, along with an anti-inflammatory analgesic, such as ibuprofen.

Get professional help if you plan to breastfeed after breast surgery

Don’t feel that you need to go breastfeeding after breast cancer alone. Contact an international board-certified lactation consultant is this situation. You’ll be glad you did.

Have you or someone you know been able to successfully breastfeed after breast cancer? I’d love to hear your story! Share your comments in the below

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