Many women in their 20s and 30s have children come into their lives through childbirth or adoption (like me!). It’s a time when we have more energy to keep up with little ones, and for most women, our bodies are more biologically inclined to bear children. Thankfully, this is a time in life when risk for developing breast cancer is low; Susan G. Komen reports that fewer than five percent of women in the U.S. under the age of 40 are diagnosed with breast cancer.
But for those five percent, the joy of pregnancy and childbirth can be quickly overshadowed with a breast cancer diagnosis. Today, we share two powerful, rare stories of women who’ve walked through breast cancer while pregnant and the different ways they’ve triumphed over the disease to give baby their best!
Erin Maher - Breast Cancer while Pregnant and the Generosity of Milksharing
[IMAGE: Erin posing with baby Illiana for The Milk Stories, where she shared her beautiful story in greater detail (See Oct. 17-20). Photo by Ashlan Taylor Photography]
Erin and her husband deeply desired another child, and after a few years of trying, assumed their dream wouldn’t come true. But then… they were elated to learn of their pregnancy with daughter Illiana. At their 14-week appointment, on Aug. 3 of this year, Erin also learned she had Stage 3 breast cancer. A dream and a nightmare came true simultaneously. In an interview with The Columbian, this Vancouver pink warrior said “One of the first thoughts that went through my head was, ‘I’m not going to be able to breastfeed my baby.’” Erin had breastfed son Liam until he was older than 2, and wanted the same for her daughter. She had even started a Facebook group in the past to donate her surplus to mothers and babes in need. This time, it was her turn. Erin posted her story and made the request for mamas to share milk, and since this past August, she says she’s stocked her deep freezer with thousands of ounces of milk -- more than a year of supply.
Did you know that most babies can drink most human milk? The concept of milk sharing is ages old -- ever hear of the term “wet nurse”? Donor milk is used regularly for babes who are in NICU and need the nourishment of breast milk. You can attain donor milk from groups like Human Milk 4 Human Babies (HM4HB), milk banks or trusted friends. Be sure to ask about allergies, medications and caffeine consumption if you pursue donated milk.
Erin’s treatment includes chemotherapy, which she’ll complete just after the Thanksgiving holiday. Then she’ll have a lump removed from her right breast in December. Baby Illiana will be induced at 37 weeks, and Erin will have a double mastectomy two to four weeks later. A friend and fan of mimijumi gave her a mimijumi baby bottle, a great option for mamas who want to give their baby the closest to the breast. “I'm very excited to try it when our daughter arrives!” she says. Erin, we are in your corner and wish all the best for you and your sweet family!
Natasha Fogerty - Breast Cancer Changed her Feeding Plan
Brave mama Natasha Fogerty was diagnosed with breast cancer when her nursing son, Milo, was six months old. Fogerty decided to fight cancer and fight hard. Her inspiring blog is called “Just a Mom Destroying Cancer,” if that gives you a better glimpse of this amazing woman’s tenacity! After dying her hair pink, having a sweet photo shoot of her nursing Milo for the last time on the affected breast, and sharing her story on national TV, she underwent surgery and radiation treatment. Natasha loved breastfeeding her son, and like so many mamas before her, made the selfless choice to do so for as long as her body allowed.
Once I knew I would live, finding out that I wouldn’t be able to breastfeed Milo took a hold of me. I felt like I was losing myself in more ways than one. I loved breastfeeding Milo. There is a connection like no one can explain. It was a pure love connection. We sat in a room processing all of this news for a while, but I kept going back to the inability to breastfeed Milo. It was devastating.
Natasha did what great mamas do -- she gave her baby her best! We applaud her for documenting her journey to inspire other women. I can tell you as a mama who bottle fed my babies, I discovered I could bond with baby through feeding, even though it wasn’t breastfeeding. There were so many beautiful moments between us. Feeding is a special time for both baby and parent, and includes lots of warm snuggles, hugs and opportunities for connection. Pick a special spot in your home that is calm and relaxing. Consider special music or (if you’re awake and functioning) share stories with your little one about her family, those who love her and special memories you hope to make one day. Talk to friends who have bottle fed their infants to help you understand that this can be a very sweet option! We hope Natasha and Milo continue bonding in their own special ways.
We’ve heard from two amazing mamas who’ve gotten creative and proactive to feed their babies. Medically speaking, it is possible to breastfeed with breast cancer. Here are a few common scenarios (note: consult your doctor for more information):
- Radiation Therapy: With your doc’s approval, you should be able to nurse on the unaffected side. You may be able to return to nursing on the affected side once your treatment is finished and you aren’t taking serious post-treatment meds. Two keys to remember: it is possible for drugs to pass to baby through breast milk, and it’s common for production to reduce at the time of radiation treatment, but only in the affected breast.
- Chemotherapy: For women who pursue chemotherapy to fight cancer, most won’t be able to nurse until a significant amount of time has passed since your last treatment, according to a great article from What To Expect. Depending upon which drugs you’re prescribed, you may need to wait anywhere from weeks to months to return to nursing.
- Remission: Do you have a history of breast cancer but are living in remission? (Note: “remission” can be partial or complete; the latter means not showing symptoms for 5+ years, at which point some pros may designate you “cured”.) Chances are that giving birth may keep you healthier. Komen says, according to a comprehensive study, “women who had a child after breast cancer treatment had better overall survival than women who did not,” and “women who become pregnant after completing treatment for breast cancer may be healthier than those who do not.”
- Lumpectomy: In the case of a lumpectomy procedure, it is possible and safe for baby to feed from the treated breast, again, with the guidance and blessing of your doc.
- Mastectomy: For mastectomy patients like Natasha, mama can nurse her little one from the unaffected breast, although milk may be limited at first. Like always with breastfeeding, the more baby eats, the more milk comes in! Consistent pumping and nursing may lead to successful breastfeeding.
Did you know? BreastCancer.org reports women who breastfeed for one year or longer may have lower risk of developing breast cancer, as breastfeeding can protect a woman’s health. “Making milk 24/7 limits breast cells' ability to misbehave. Also, most women have fewer menstrual cycles when they're breastfeeding (added to the 9 missed periods during pregnancy) resulting in lower estrogen levels and many women tend to eat more nutritious foods and follow healthier lifestyles (limit smoking and alcohol use) while breastfeeding.” Wow! How amazing is that?!
If you have been diagnosed with cancer, Erin and Natasha are great role models and we hope you can take strength from their stories. You too can navigate this challenging space and find the best feeding solution for you and baby. Your diagnosis does not define you! Be empowered to give your baby your best, whether that’s continuing to breastfeed, pursuing a combination of breastfeeding and bottle feeding or simply bottlefeeding. Know you have a community of women and parents on your side cheering you on!