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Role of breastfeeding in reducing the risk of breast cancer

Breast cancer accounts for 14% of cancers in Indian women. One woman gets diagnosed with breast cancer every 4 minutes in India, and one woman dies of breast cancer every 13 minutes, making it the most prevalent cancer among women. 

About one in twenty-eight Indian women are expected to develop breast cancer during their lifetime. It is more (1 in 22) for urban women when compared to the rural group (1 in 60). By 2030, breast cancer is expected to cause more deaths among women in India than any other malady. Additionally, India has the highest rate of the most aggressive breast cancer in the world, triple-negative breast cancer. 

Evidence shows that, in general, the greater the number of months that women continue breastfeeding their babies, the greater the protection these women have against breast cancer.

Women who breastfeed experience a change in hormones that can delay their menstrual cycles. This reduces a woman’s lifetime exposure to the hormone estrogen, which can stimulate cancer cell growth. Pregnancy and breastfeeding also cause breast tissue to be shed. This shedding can eliminate damaged cells that may cause cancer.

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 A landmark study published in 2002 looked at 50,000 cases of breast cancer and concluded that the risk of breast cancer was decreased by 4.3% for every 12 months a woman breastfeeds. Another review in 2013 determined that if a woman breastfed longer than 12 months total during their lifetime, they had a 28% lower risk of developing breast cancer.

Risk factors for breast cancer

  • From birth to age 39, the risk is 1 in 29.
  • From age 40 to 59, the risk is 1 in 24.
  • From age 60 to 79, the risk is 1 in 13.
  • Personal history of breast cancer: 
  • Family history/ Menstrual history
  • Genetic alterations
  • Race: Breast cancer in the United States occurs more often in white women than Latina, Asian, or African American women. But in women 40 and younger, African American women have the highest risk.
  • Radiation therapy to the chest before you were 30 years old
  • Breast density: Exposure to DES (diethylstilbestrol)
  • Late pregnancy or no pregnancy

In a study by the Collaborative Group on Hormonal Factors in Breast Cancer, researchers found that for every 12 months a woman breastfed, her risk of breast cancer decreased by 4.3%. The study compared mothers who breastfed to those who didn’t. It also found the 12-month time period could be with either one child or as the total for several children.  

Furthermore, Australian researchers found that women who breastfed for more than 13 months were 63% less likely to develop ovarian cancer than women who breastfed for less than seven months. Women who breastfed multiple children for more than 31 months could reduce their ovarian cancer risk by up to 91% compared to women who breastfed for less than 10 months.

Symptoms of breast cancer

  • Lumps or mass in the breast- Not at all lumps are cancerous. They might be benign fibrocystic breast diseases. Cancer lumps are mostly hard painless and immovable.
  • Breast Skin changes include dimpled skin, puckered, thickened, reddened, scaly, flattening, etc.
  • Nipple Changes include pain, redness, scaliness, Itching, nipple skin thickening, retracted nipple, discharge from the nipple (other than breast milk).

Investigations for Breast Cancer

  • USG
  • Mammogram
  • Biopsy
  • CT

The treatment of breast cancer depends on its kind and how far it has spread. In order to choose the right treatment, patients should consult a doctor about the treatment options available for their type and stage of cancer. The success rate of breast cancer treatments also depends upon factors like early detection and screening which can be achieved only through constant awareness and consultation.


Note: The article is based on the inputs from:

  • Dr Priya Radhakrishnan MBBS, MD, DGO(O&G), MRCOG(UK), Certified Lactation Consultant- The Palakkad District Hospital & Research Centre, Susrutha Fertility Centre, Palakkad
  • Ms Roopa Selvanayaki Senthilnathan, Founder – Amirtham Breast Milk Donation Drive 
  • Dr R Sureshkumar MD RT, Radiation Oncologist, Clinical Director and CEO – Bangalore Cancer Centre, Consultant – Erode Cancer Centre

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