For babies, the benefits of breast-feeding are clear: a stronger immune system, reduced risk for some chronic health conditions and a closer bond with mom. But does breast-feeding also protect women against breast cancer?
Nursing has been linked to a reduced risk of breast cancer in both pre- and post-menopausal women. But, says Virginia Borges, director of the University of Colorado Cancer Center’s young women’s breast cancer program, “it gets complicated from here.”
Nursing a baby changes the structure of the breast. Even after breast-feeding ends, microscopic changes in the milk-delivery system protect the breast against precancerous cells, Borges says. This effect is more common among women who have nursed more children or for longer periods than others.
The older a woman is when she gives birth for the first time, the more likely she is to get breast cancer. But, Borges says, it’s not that simple. “I would never want a woman to decide to not have a child because of anything related to breast cancer.”