Women's Health

Breastfeeding Can Lower Risk of Ovarian Cancer

Breastfeeding Can Lower Risk of Ovarian Cancer

If you are pregnant and at risk for ovarian cancer, consider breastfeeding your child(ren) to greatly reduce your risk.

The idea that breastfeeding reduces a woman’s risk for disease is not new. It is not, however, advertised widely, so many women may be unaware.

Reports that are more commonly talked about are breastfeeding and its positive effect on babies. Amongst pregnant women and those with young children, talk is more likely to revolve around babies, understandably.

According to Lori Blauwet, Cardiovascular Disease Program Director at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, there is not as much research on the effects of breastfeeding on moms as on babies. It is natural that society would focus on babies. Breastfeeding seems like it is yet another way mothers give to their children, rather than benefit themselves in the process.

How breastfeeding helps babies

Breast milk helps babies fight off viruses and bacteria with antibodies. It has been shown to lower rates of asthma and allergies in kids. Fewer respiratory problems and diarrhea are seen in babies breastfed exclusively for at least 6 months.

Despite these facts, and possibly as a result of the demands of modern life, many women in the U.S. choose to bottle feed their babies. More than 70 percent of women in the U.S. don’t follow recommendations to use only breast milk to feed their babies for the first 6 months.

The goal is always to have the healthiest baby possible. And while science has some compelling evidence for breastfeeding to keep an infant healthy, there are many reasons which stop American women from starting it or sticking with it.

Perceptions have changed

There have been varying perceptions of this feeding method over the years in the U.S. There are still biases over whether women should breastfeed in public.

Just after World War II, when more women were entering the workforce, the idea of bottle feeding became more common.

There was a time when women not only had to return to work after giving birth, but didn’t have the option of pumping. The electric breast pump was only developed in 1991. You either stayed home and breast-fed, or went to work and bottle fed. Doctors didn’t necessarily know the benefits of breast milk either.

In the 1970s, breast feeding was at an all-time low, with only 5 percent of women breastfeeding their babies for several months.

Today, formula manufacturers continue to use heavy advertising to encourage women to feel comfortable with the idea of the modern convenience of bottle feeding.

The manufacturers say they don’t advertise against breastfeeding, just to compete with other formula manufacturers. Yet, just viewing successful appearing mothers on television bottle feeding is enough impetus in many cases to bring acceptance of bottle feeding as a legitimate option.

Baby formula marketing emphasizes the angle that it is similar to breast milk.

Along with the lack of support for breastfeeding in public, where it may become necessary to feed your baby, there is acceptance for bottle feeding. More than half of hospitals in the country give out free formula samples for new moms, giving silent acceptance and possibly promotion of bottle feeding.

Rafael Perez-Escamilla, director of the Office of Public Health Practice at Yale’s School of Public Health says, “Formula samples received from a medical facility signals to the mom that formula feeding is medically endorsed.”

What is getting in the way of breastfeeding?

There may be a lack of instruction on the act of breastfeeding in hospitals, and if there is no one in your family who is able to teach you, then it may be difficult to start. It doesn’t necessarily come as naturally as one might at first think. The beginning can be difficult. New moms might not know that it gets easier with time.

Women who don’t actively seek information about lactation from their doctor might not know that help is available. It becomes easy to just give up without the support you need.

There are other reasons for new moms not beginning to breastfeed or not continuing it beyond a few months. “Long-term exclusive breastfeeding is not what most women in the U.S. are doing”, according to Laurence Grummer-Strawn, chief of the Nutrition Branch at the CDC.

More than half of babies in the U.S. participate in the WIC program, which provides formula for free. They endorse breastfeeding as optimal, but giving something away for free is an endorsement also.

Many women need to return to work, and often don’t have an adequate place to pump. While certain job sites are required to provide a place to pump, it can be exhausting to spend nights up with a new baby, days working, and all breaks pumping. It takes a lot of tenacity.

There is no paid maternity leave for low-income jobs, income affects feeding methods. More highly educated, Caucasian women are proven to be more likely to breastfeed. So, access to education plays a part in the decision-making process.

Why breastfeed?

The World Health Organization recommends breastfeeding for 2 years for maximum benefit to baby and mother.

It has been known that breastfeeding helps reduce the risk of many diseases for women. Several studies have linked breastfeeding to protection against rheumatoid arthritis. Harvard’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital found that nursing for 2 years reduced risk by 50 percent.

It also has been shown it reduces the risk for thyroid cancer, breast cancer and heart disease. Researchers say that lactation makes cells more sensitive to insulin, reducing the risk for type II diabetes.

Stress has been shown to play a part in disease in general. Researchers at Cornell University discovered that lactating women released half the amount of stress hormones that non-lactating women do. This of course plays a part in disease prevention, postpartum depression and coping with being a new mom.

Oxytocin is released by breastfeeding mothers. In a 2005 study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, oxytocin lessened fear and anxiety in test subjects. Low levels of this hormone increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.

So, even though it has clearly has been shown to have benefits, those advantages have not necessarily been promoted to the public.

Breastfeeding is much more beneficial in preventing disease and reducing medical costs than previously estimated, according to Melissa Bartick, assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and Cambridge Health Alliance.

If women in the U.S. were to breastfeed for a total of 1 year and exclusively for at least 6 months, it could save 4.3 billion in health care. This is significant to note for individuals wanting to maintain their own health as well as other women in their community.

Reducing risk for ovarian cancer

In addition to being a preventative measure against other serious diseases, it has been known that pregnancies before the age of 25, and multiple pregnancies, can reduce the risk of ovarian cancer. Now they know also that lactation is of additional benefit for a mother’s protection against ovarian cancer.

A study in 2013 by Curtin University in Australia looked at 493 ovarian cancer patients and 472 controls without ovarian cancer. All women were approximately 59 years old. The researchers surveyed the women to see how many of them had breastfed children and for how long.

It was revealed that women who had breastfed for more than 13 months were 63 percent less likely to develop ovarian cancer than women who had done so for less than 7 months. Women who had used this method to feed their babies for over 31 months in total were up to 91 percent less likely to end up being diagnosed with the cancer.

Ninety-one percent is a very significant number.

Participants in a study based in Washington state from 2002 to 200, deduced that women who had breastfed at least 1 baby for 18 months or more had a 43 percent risk reduction compared to those who never had.

It is concluded that there is a relationship between ovulation and a risk of ovarian cancer. Breastfeeding reduces a mother’s ovulations and reduces her exposure to estrogen. Reducing lifetime exposure to estrogen via the hormonal changes that occur during pregnancy and breastfeeding could help prevent ovarian cancer. It can also reduce potential exposure to abnormal cells (potentially cancerous) shed during the ovulation process.

Another research study by Australian researchers studied Chinese women in a case-controlled study in the Guangzhou, Guangdong Province between August 2006 and July 2008. They concluded that lengthy lactation resulted in a lower risk of ovarian cancer in the parous Chinese women.

Oxford University finds that risk is reduced with the birth of every additional child. The risk is reduced by 8 percent with each additional child.

Likelihood of ovarian cancer increases after menopause. Incessant ovulation as a risk is a theory, where a woman’s ovulation isn’t stopped by pregnancy or breastfeeding. It is seen also that women who start menstruating early and/or end late in life, are at risk for developing this type of cancer.

What researchers call a meta-analysis, or large analysis of a number of studies, was performed between the years 1983 and 2012 on the association between breastfeeding and ovarian cancer risk. There were 35 studies taken into account, which compared the risk of ovarian cancer in women who had either never breastfed or had breast fed. They were based in various countries all around the world.

The findings that were published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition indicated an association between ever having breastfed and reduction of ovarian cancer risk. Specifically, the findings were that there was an average of 24 percent reduction in ovarian cancer, compared with someone who had never breastfed. It did not study long-term feeding benefits.

Other studies have documented increased benefits of continuing to breastfeed for a lengthy period of time, such as up to a year or two.

Researchers reported that significant associations between more lengthy breastfeeding and health benefits were seen in American women. Apparently American women have more variety of breastfeeding duration than other countries.

Making choices for your future

These findings definitely give women something to consider when making the important choice of how to care for themselves and their babies.

Ovarian cancer typically strikes later in life, but choices made earlier in life can apparently make all the difference later on.