According to a recent article published in The Lancet, women who breastfeed have a reduced risk of developing breast cancer. Furthermore, women who breastfeed longer continue to reduce their risk.

Breast cancer is diagnosed in over 200,000 women and causes approximately 40,000 deaths annually in the United States. Researchers are evaluating ways in which to prevent the disease altogether and trying to uncover variables that help to reduce the risk of a woman developing breast cancer. It has long been thought that cultures where women give birth at an earlier age or have multiple children have a lower incidence of breast cancer, so researchers underwent a study to determine if breastfeeding played a role in this association.

The Collaborative Group on Hormonal Factors in Breast Cancer recently reviewed data from over 50,000 women with invasive breast cancer and nearly 97,000 women who did not have breast cancer to study factors that may contribute to the development of breast cancer. The amount of total months spent breastfeeding was 15.6 months for women who did not have breast cancer, compared to only 9.8 months for women who developed invasive breast cancer. Nearly 80% of women who did not have breast cancer had breastfed in their lifetime, compared to 71% of women who did have breast cancer. The average number of births was 2.6 for women without breast cancer, compared to 2.2 for women who did have breast cancer.

The researchers estimated that for every year of breastfeeding, the risk of breast cancer was diminished by 4.3% and for every birth, the risk of breast cancer was diminished by 7%. Other factors such as the age of the firstborn child, age of menopause and the area in which a woman lived (developed versus undeveloped country) did not make a difference in the incidence of breast cancer.

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The researchers concluded that the longer a woman breastfeeds, the more she reduces her risk of developing breast cancer. Women with children or women who are thinking of having children may wish to discuss the option of breastfeeding with their physician.

Reference: Collaborative Group on Hormonal Factors in Breast Cancer. Breast cancer and breastfeeding: collaborative reanalysis of individual data from 47 epidemiological studies in 30 countries, including 50,302 women with breast cancer and 96,973 women without the disease.

The Lancet. 2002;360:187-195.

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