How Breastfeeding Saved My Life
Lindenhurst NY USA
From NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 24 No. 1, January-February 2007, pp. 13-14
Before I became a mother, I was aware of the physical benefits of breastfeeding, but I never imagined the incredible emotional bond it could provide for a mother and baby. When I gave birth to our son, Kyle, in 1994, I was determined that he would only get "Mommy's finest." We experienced many of the difficulties that a lot of new mothers face in the early days, but with hard work, determination, and the caring support of my husband, Rob, we overcame them. From that point on, I could never imagine mothering my children any other way. That was the beginning of my passion for breastfeeding. In 1996, we were blessed with our second son, Ryan. He was a very easy baby, and we had no difficulties getting nursing off to a good start. On Christmas Eve of 2004, our baby girl, Abbey, joined the family. The boys each self-weaned around their second birthdays, and Abbey, one, is still going strong. For this I am thankful, because if she was not nursing, I would have never found out that I had breast cancer.
In February 2006, when I was 36 and Abbey was not quite 14 months old, I found a lump in my right breast. It stood out to me because, although I have fibrocystic breasts that always feel lumpy, this lump was different, about pebble sized, and very solid. I was not overly concerned because I felt that my extended breastfeeding, along with the fact that I had no family history, would provide me with protection against developing breast cancer. However, my good friend, Cathy, whose breastfed children are the same ages as mine, had just been through a battle with breast cancer, so I was aware of the possibility that this might be something serious. Within two weeks, I had an appointment with a breast surgeon that I had previously gone to for a consult about my cysts. His initial reaction was that I probably had a glandular change related to nursing. I was a bit disappointed that he was so quick to blame it on breastfeeding, but at least he referred me for an ultrasound to get a better look. The radiologist felt that it looked like a lymph node. He told me that it was very common to see this and that years ago they would always remove them, but would find that they were "always nothing, so now we leave them alone." I went back to the breast surgeon, where I was given a choice: Was I comfortable watching and waiting to see if it changed, or would I like to have a lumpectomy so we could know for sure? I opted for the surgery, especially after finding out that the procedure would be done in a small surgical suite in the office under light sedation and with a laser. I would go home within a couple of hours and would be able to nurse Abbey again as soon as I wanted.
The procedure went smoothly. The doctor told me that he felt it looked like it would be nothing, and that he is usually about 90 percent accurate. I went home feeling really good. I had no pain, which is credited to the laser. I even decided to go ahead with the plans I had to visit relatives (with my mother and children) in another state for four days. The visit was going well until Rob called to tell me that the surgeon's office had called and that they would not tell him what it was about. With trepidation, I contacted my doctor. I had told him I would be away, so I did not feel optimistic about his wanting to talk to me so urgently. He apologized for giving me the report over the phone, but felt it was important that I know as soon as possible that there was cancer in my breast. It was a very surreal feeling to be told that I had breast cancer over a cell phone in my uncle's backyard. The doctor said that I needed to see him as soon as I got home, which would be in two days. Needless to say, it was very difficult to enjoy the rest of our visit.
My diagnosis was Ductal Carcinoma In Situ (DCIS) with microinvasion. It was caught early. But the most incredible part was that the original lump was a lactating adenoma -- a benign glandular change that occurs in some breastfeeding women. The doctor's presumption had been right. The cancer was in the tissue around the adenoma. The two were most likely unrelated. He told us that he considered it miraculous that we found it. He also pointed out that if we had chosen to watch and wait, it could have been more serious. The first thought that crossed my mind was that my daughter had saved my life. If I hadn't been lactating, we would not have found the cancer so early.
Usually DCIS means that the cancerous cells are contained in the milk ducts, but I had microinvasion, which meant that they were starting to break out of the ducts and invade the surrounding tissue. He told me that I needed to have a partial mastectomy, a sentinel lymph node dissection, and biopsy to be sure that the cancer had not spread. I had the second surgery 12 days after the first. It was a bit more complicated, but, again, it was done in the office. I experienced very little pain and I went home soon after. I was able to nurse Abbey, which my doctor highly encouraged to avoid developing a milk fistula, which could cause an infection.
Thankfully I received good news about this biopsy. My lymph nodes were negative, and the doctor seemed to have gotten all of the affected tissue. However, in a couple of places the margins were very small. The doctor felt that it was necessary to do a third surgery to remove more tissue to make sure that we had "clean margins." That was scheduled for two weeks later, but things were not going to be straightforward. The night before the surgery, a home pregnancy test came up positive. We were astounded, but thrilled. Upon speaking to the doctor in the morning, we felt that the surgery was necessary and, based on things we had read, it should be safe for the baby.
This biopsy indicated that the doctor had removed all of the cancerous tissue during the second surgery. The new dilemma was figuring out how to approach further treatment. I consulted with medical and radiation oncologists. It was determined that I would not need chemotherapy, but that I should have radiation. Obviously this could not be done while I was pregnant. Unfortunately, I had a miscarriage two weeks later.
I started daily radiation, planning to wean Abbey off the right breast but still nurse on the left. But then I came across an article about a woman who had nursed on the affected side during radiation. After serious discussion with the oncologist, we decided to try this with the understanding that skin changes could make nursing uncomfortable. In week five of my treatment, I developed a radiation burn and a sore nipple. Abbey would no longer nurse from that side, and it was painful for me. My treatments were finished after seven weeks. I was happy that I'd been ale to produce all the milk that Abbey needed on one side, but I was still determined to get her back to nursing on the right side, too. I healed quickly (thanks to the healing power of applying breast milk to the affected skin) and within three weeks of finishing my treatments, I offered her my right breast during a sleepy moment and she readily accepted it. I expressed milk by hand from the right side, so I knew she was getting something. One of my doctors predicted that my milk supply would dry up on both sides as a result of the radiation, but this didn't happen. I'm happy that I beat cancer and got my breast back to doing what it was made for. Continuing to nurse Abbey during all of my surgeries and treatments helped establish a sense of normalcy for both her and me. She never had to experience any anxiety due to weaning because of my breast cancer.
I'm blessed to have had such a wonderful outcome. I'm glad the cancer was caught early because if I had needed chemotherapy, I would have had to wean immediately. I also did not need any follow up drugs that would have forced weaning. I was fortunate (and pleasantly surprised) that my doctors were supportive of me doing what I felt was right for both me and my baby. I hope to inspire other nursing mothers who may be in the same position. Most of all, I love telling the story about how breastfeeding saved my life!