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Breastfeeding May Offer Preventative Benefits for Childhood Cancer Survivors

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Cancer related image Photo: Getty Images

Susan Ogg and colleagues at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital are on a mission. They want women who survived childhood cancer to know they may be able to offset some of the negative health effects of their early cancer treatment by breastfeeding.

The researchers are making all women aware of the benefits of breastfeeding, and are encouraging doctors, nurses and lactation experts to recommend breastfeeding as part of routine post-cancer diet and healthy lifestyle recommendations.

Clearly, we’ve come a long way baby when it comes to increasing childhood cancer survival rates. Unlike just a few decades ago, 80 percent of children and adolescents treated with modern cancer therapies now survive. That means one in every 640 young adults between the ages of 20 and 39 will be a survivor of childhood cancer.

However, cancer treatment is not without risks later in life. This growing number of cancer survivors faces significant health challenges, including a variety of adverse effects of the cancer itself and its treatment. These late effects include impaired growth and development, organ dysfunction, reproductive difficulties as well as increased risk of a secondary cancer recurrence.

It is well established that breastfeeding confers a number of health benefits to infants and their mothers. Breastfeeding potentially provides protective effects against many health conditions, including cardiac disease, breast cancer, obesity, bone density problems and diabetes. In addition, breastfed infants are at a significantly decreased risk for a large number of acute and chronic diseases, as well as cancer.

Ogg and her team wanted to know if what is good for baby is also good for mother, especially if mom is a childhood cancer survivor. By reviewing existing research, the team looked at whether women can successfully breastfeed after childhood cancer treatment, the long-term effects of early cancer treatment on women's health in general, and how breastfeeding may help to reduce both the risk and impact of cancer-related toxicity in those who survive.

They found that breastfeeding had the potential to positively influence bone mineral density, metabolic syndrome risk factors, cardiovascular disease and secondary tumors - conditions negatively affected by childhood cancer.

Breastfeeding is also a well-known calorie burner, and mothers who nurse their babies often lose more weight in a shorter period of time than mothers who opt to formula feed.

Not every woman who survives childhood cancer will be physically able to breast feed, due to some types of treatments, such as those treated for Hodgkin’s lymphoma with radiation to the chest, neck and armpit areas, and not every women who breastfeeds will be guaranteed a clean bill of health. However, the researchers expect the majority of survivors across all cancer diagnoses and treatments should be able to lactate and breastfeed, said James Klosky, PhD, a psychologist at St. Jude and a co-author of the study.

The study recommends women who have survived childhood cancer and are physically able to breastfeed, should be actively encouraged to do so to help protect them against the many lasting effects of cancer treatment along with advice to eat plenty of fruit and vegetables, abstain from or quit smoking, use suitable sun protection, practice safe sex and take part in regular physical activity.

“In the big picture, the benefits of breast-feeding demonstrated in the healthy population should not only be generalizable to women who survived childhood cancer, but in some ways may even ameliorate some potential late side effects that they experience, because it just so happens that breast-feeding can improve those systems affected by cancer treatments,” Klosky said.

Lynette Summerill is an award-winning writer who lives in Scottsdale, Arizona. In addition to writing about cancer-related issues for EmpowHER, she pens Nonsmoking Nation, a blog following global tobacco news and events.

Source: Ogg SW et al (2011). Protective effects of breastfeeding for mothers surviving childhood cancer. Journal of Cancer Survivorship. DOI 10.1007/s11764-010-0169-z

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