RALEIGH, N.C. – Women who have a family history of breast cancer could reduce their risk of developing early onset of the disease by 59 percent if they breast-feed their babies, scientists at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and other centers reported Monday.
The current research offers the strongest evidence yet that breast-feeding is a powerful cancer prevention among high-risk women, specifically younger women who have not gone through menopause.
The benefit, which is more effective than taking a preventive regimen of the anti-cancer drug tamoxifen, appears to occur even when women breast-feed for a short period.
“The bottom line is this is really good news for women with a history of breast cancer,” said Dr. Alison Stuebe, lead author of the study and an assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology in the Division of Maternal Fetal Medicine at UNC-Chapel Hill.
The study, which focused on the cancer risk for women prior to menopause, was published Monday in the Archives of Internal Medicine.
Breast-feeding advocates hailed the results as clear evidence that women should try to nourish their babies naturally.
“I think this is huge,” said Mary Overfield, a lactation consultant at WakeMed and an advocate with the North Carolina Breastfeeding Coalition. “I have several friends who are breast cancer survivors, and you better believe they’d have done anything they could to cut their risk.”
She said efforts to encourage women to attempt breast-feeding often focus on the benefits to the baby, including fewer weight problems, allergies and ear infections.
Mothers also reap health advantages, notably a reduced risk of Type 2 diabetes. Some previous studies had noted the lower risk of developing breast cancer, while other studies found no association.
Enlisting more than 60,000 participants from a massive study of nurses, the breast cancer arm of the study was specifically designed to explore links between breast-feeding and breast cancer.
Researchers surveyed participants about childbirth and breast-feeding, as well as cancer occurrences, at regular intervals between 1997 and 2005.
Among women whose mothers, grandmothers or sisters had breast cancer, those who breast-fed their babies had a 59 percent reduction in incidences of premenopausal breast cancer than women who bottle fed.