Women's Health

Breastfeeding Can Lower the Risk of Ovarian Cancer

Breastfeeding Can Lower the Risk of Ovarian Cancer

If you are pregnant and at risk for ovarian cancer, consider breastfeeding your baby to greatly reduce your risk. The idea that breastfeeding reduces a woman’s risk for disease is not new. However, it is still widely unadvertised, so many women are still unaware of the other benefits of breastfeeding.

Reports that are more commonly talked about are breastfeeding and its positive effect on babies. Among pregnant women and those with young children, the topics are understandably more likely to revolve around babies. According to Dr. 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 the rates of asthma and allergies in children. Fewer respiratory problems and diarrhea are seen in babies who are exclusively breastfed for at least six months.

Despite these facts, and possibly as a result of the demands of modern life, many women in the US choose to bottle-feed their babies. More than 70 percent of women in the US do not follow recommendations to use only breast milk to feed their babies for the first six months.

The goal is to keep the baby healthy as much as possible. Although 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 US. There are still biases whether women should breastfeed in public. Just after World War II, more women were entering the workforce, and 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 did not have the option of pumping. The electric breast pump was only developed in 1991. You either stayed home and breastfed, or went to work and bottle-fed. In the 1970s, breastfeeding 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 that they do not advertise against breastfeeding, but compete with other formula manufacturers instead. However, just by viewing successful mothers who appear bottle-feeding their child on television is enough impetus, in many cases, to bring acceptance of bottle-feeding as a legitimate option. Moreover, baby formula marketing emphasizes the angle that formula milk 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 promoting bottle-feeding.

Rafael Perez-Escamilla, the Director of the Office of Public Health Practice at the Yale 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 does not necessarily come as naturally as one might initially think. The beginning can be difficult, and new moms might not know that it gets easier with time.

Women who do not actively seek information about lactation from their doctor might not know that help is available. It is really easy to just give up without any support for breastfeeding.

There are other reasons for new moms not to breastfeed or not continuing it beyond a few months. “Long-term exclusive breastfeeding is not what most women in the US are doing," says Dr. Laurence Grummer-Strawn, Chief of the Nutrition Branch at the CDC.

More than half of babies in the US participate in the WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) program, which provides milk formula for free. They endorse breastfeeding as optimal, but giving something away for free is also an effective endorsement.

Many women need to return to work, and often do not have a proper 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 really takes a lot of patience and endurance, especially for working mothers.

There is no paid maternity leave for low-income jobs, and income affects feeding methods. It has been shown that more highly educated Caucasian women are more likely to breastfeed. Thus, access to education also plays a crucial part in the decision-making process.

Why breastfeed?

The World Health Organization recommends breastfeeding for two 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 two years reduced risk by 50 percent.

It also has been shown that breastfeeding reduces the risk of thyroid cancer, breast cancer, and heart disease. Researchers say that lactation makes cells more sensitive to insulin, reducing the risk of developing type 2 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 discovery, of course, plays a part in disease prevention, postpartum depression, and coping with being a new mom.

The hormone called 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.

Even though breastfeeding has clearly shown its benefits to women, such advantages have not been necessarily promoted to the public. "Breastfeeding is much more beneficial in preventing disease and reducing medical costs than previously estimated," says Dr. Melissa Bartick, Assistant Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and Cambridge Health Alliance.

If women in the US were to breastfeed for at least a year and exclusively for at least six 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 the risk of 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. Moreover, lactation is an additional benefit for mothers when it comes to protection against ovarian cancer.

A 2013 study at 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 their 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 seven 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 ovarian cancer. Ninety-one percent is a very significant number.

It is concluded that there is a relationship between ovulation and the risk of ovarian cancer. Breastfeeding delays a mother’s ovulation and reduces her exposure to estrogen. Reducing lifetime exposure to estrogen via 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 process of ovulation.

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

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

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

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 breastfed. 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 the reduction of ovarian cancer risk. Specifically, the findings showed an average of a 24 percent reduction in ovarian cancer risk, compared with someone who had never breastfed. However, the long-term breastfeeding benefits were not included in the study.

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 have also reported significant associations between lengthy breastfeeding and health benefits in American women. Apparently, American women have more varying 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.