How Breastfeeding May Have Saved My Life
From NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 18 No. 2, March-April 2001, pp. 56-57
I don't remember exactly why or how I decided to breastfeed my daughter, Sophia, long-term. I only know that my life may have depended on this decision. I'd been a vegetarian for over twenty years and I'd always leaned toward herbal medicines and natural treatments, so breastfeeding seemed to be the natural decision when I got pregnant a couple of years ago. I took a breastfeeding class with my husband, read books, and even hired a doula who was knowledgeable about breastfeeding for our birth. When my daughter was born she took to my breasts quickly and naturally, loving to suck while meeting her needs through this wonderfully satisfying experience. She thrived physically, mentally, and emotionally and I'm certain the breastfeeding experience was at least in part responsible for this. Because I too loved our breastfeeding and the incredible bonding and closeness it brought, my original goal of weaning by six months easily turned into a year and then two years.
One day when my daughter was 20 months old, she started playing, moving her chin back and forth over something in my breast as she was breastfeeding. When I felt the area myself I could discern a marble-sized lump that moved around when touched. I knew from my reading that breastfeeding could cause certain kinds of lumps and irregularities, so I wasn't too concerned. I waited a month or so and then called my doctor, who checked out the lump and also thought it breastfeeding-related, probably a milk-filled cyst. When it hadn't disappeared after a month, I had a mammogram, ultrasound, and fine needle breast biopsy. I continued to nurse uninterrupted. The biopsy showed suspicious cells so I was scheduled for a lump removal. They still thought it was nothing serious. I recovered quickly from the minor surgery, breastfeeding my daughter on the opposite breast while I gave the operated-on breast a day or two to recover. However, a week later, I didn't recover so quickly from the news that the lump they had removed was invasive intraductal carcinoma-breast cancer.
I was scheduled for a lumpectomy and lymph node removal a week or so later and was told I should wean my daughter from the affected breast by then. I told her my one breast had a "boo-boo." She respected this and fed only from the other one. Fortunately, in the second surgery, the surgeon found clear margins (no cancer cells in the area surrounding the lump) and there was no lymph node involvement, strongly indicating no spread beyond the one breast. The surgeon stressed how lucky I was that this cancer was caught early and that because of this my prognosis was very good and the chance of recurrence was relatively small. I felt so grateful that I'd continued to breastfeed so long. I hadn't been doing monthly breast exams, so I fear I wouldn't have found the cancer as early if Sophia hadn't drawn my attention to it. I hate to imagine the outcome.
I was told that if I only needed radiation therapy I could continue nursing on the unaffected breast, so I breathed a sigh of relief. However, my oncologist strongly recommends chemotherapy for younger women with breast cancer. After weighing my options, I decided to have the treatment. I knew I would have to stop breastfeeding entirely, but I had to do what was best in the long run. I gradually, and a bit sadly, weaned my Sophia from the one breast she still nursed from, knowing this would probably be one of my many sacrifices for the greater good in her lifetime.
My breast cancer experience has taught me to create my own happiness despite my sometimes challenging circumstances. I've learned that worrying is mostly useless and unproductive. I've learned that pessimists may be more accurate, but that optimists live longer and have a better time in life. Finally, I've gained a much greater appreciation for the blessings, big and small, in my life. I am very grateful for the chance to breastfeed my child. Not only was it a potentially life-saving event for me, it was undoubtedly one of my life's most special and enduring gifts.