Categories: Breast Cancer

Can breast cancer develop while breast feeding?

Often, breastfeeding women are aware of how they feel when they notice some unusual changes in their breasts. While it is normal to spot lumps on the breasts during lactation, women often get worried thinking it could be signs of breast cancer. Rightfully so, for women who have breast cancer, they worry about breastfeeding and the kind of side effects their breast treatment could have on their babies.

So, the most common question that comes in every women’s mind is, can breastfeeding lead to breast cancer?

The simple answer is NO! Only 3% of breastfeeding women account for breast cancer cases. Breastfeeding is a protective factor, with women who have breastfed their children carrying a lower risk of developing breast cancer. Women are exposed to certain hormones in their life due to their menstrual cycles. These hormones can increase the risk of developing certain cancers. The months of pregnancy and breastfeeding decrease their menstrual cycles thus reducing their exposure to these hormones. Although the risk of developing breast cancer is low, women should always consult their doctors if they have concerns about their breast health.

Following are the various factors that make it difficult for lactating women to receive the right diagnosis:

  • Breastfeeding also causes lumps, so, a doctor might not think to test a woman for cancer, as they may dismiss it as the outcome of breastfeeding
  • Mammograms and breast ultrasounds are more likely to give a false positive/inconclusive result during lactation

So, what can be the reason for the development of lumps during breastfeeding?

Engorgement

  • A stage where breasts are full of milk, making them feel lumpy & uncomfortable. It is very common and goes away when the excess milk is drained or consumed.

Plugged Ducts

  • The cells in women produce and carry milk in small ducts to the nipples. Infrequent use or thickening of milk clogs these ducts, forming a lump in the breast tissue.

Mastitis

  • The inflammation or infection of breasts following engorgement/plugged ducts is called Mastitis. It can develop symptoms like redness on the breast, fever, shivering, feeling unwell.

Abscess

  • Untreated mastitis can lead to the development of an abscess. It contains a pocket of pus & bacteria. It is a serious condition that needs to be treated with antibiotics and occasionally drainage.

Galactocele

  • Galactoceles are lumps that form in the breast. They contain milk and may come and go depending on the amount of milk in breasts.

So, when do women with lumps go to the doctor?

In most breastfeeding women, although breast lumps are common, they should consult a doctor if:

  • It does not go away
  • It continues to grow
  • Pressing it does not make it move within the breast tissue
  • It causes the skin to dimple or to resemble an orange peel
  • Any apprehensions about breast health in general

In conclusion, the chances of developing breast cancer while breastfeeding is very uncommon. Any concerns about breast health should be taken seriously and consultation with the doctor is recommended.

Dr. Akshita Singh, Consultant – Breast Oncology, MSMC Bangalore

Narayana Health

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