A 37-year-old mom recently discovered that she had breast cancer not through a regular checkup but because her one-year-old son refused to breastfeed from her right breast.
Her baby's extreme reaction led her to examine her breast. She felt a "pea-size lump," she told Yahoo, and that prompted her to see a doctor. The mom, Joanne Carr, was then diagnosed with invasive ductal cancer, which is the most common type of breast cancer and is sometimes called infiltrating ductal carcinoma.
She endured eight rounds of chemotherapy, lost all her hair, and had surgery, but in April 2018, Carr was in remission.
In Carr’s account on Yahoo, she credits her son, Dougie, with saving her life, since his refusal to nurse led to her diagnosis.
Her story made us wonder: How do women with breast cancer navigate breastfeeding? The answer is complicated.
A number of drug treatments used to fight breast cancer, such as hormone therapy and chemotherapy, can be transferred to a baby via breast milk, according to the American Pregnancy Association (APA). Anesthesia can also be passed to a baby via breastfeeding.
Surgery to treat breast cancer also poses a risk—to the woman herself. Doctors might recommend that a mom with breast cancer stop breastfeeding prior to surgery to decrease breast swelling and blood flow and to prevent infection.
"We usually don't like people to breastfeed [while being treated]. Most patients get surgery [before trying to breastfeed]," Sarah Cate, MD, an assistant professor of breast surgery at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, tells Health. "If you have a diagnosis of breast cancer, you'll be asked to stop breastfeeding."
Carr said she wouldn’t have discovered the lump when she did had Dougie, her son, not stopped feeding, which she suspects he did because the lump was blocking her milk duct. Carr referred to Dougie as her “guardian angel," she said. “The doctor said it’s very strange what Dougie did. He must have known somehow. He was looking after me.”
Dr. Cate says most women think they can't get a mammogram while pregnant or breastfeeding, but this isn't the case. If a woman is breastfeeding, Dr. Cate asks her to pump or feed one hour before the mammogram. If you're pregnant and you think you need a mammogram, one can be performed after the first trimester if your stomach is shielded. So if you feel a lump while you're pregnant or nursing, don't wait—definitely get it checked out ASAP.