Health

Breastfeeding benefit to cancer survivors, says review

  • 21 January 2011
  • From the section Health
Young boy being treated for leukemia
Survival rates for childhood cancers continue to improve

Women who have survived childhood cancer could benefit if they breastfeed their own children, according to research.

Cancer survivors are often at increased risk of conditions such as obesity and weak bones.

Scientists from St Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis concluded that breastfeeding could help neutralise those risks.

The review appears in the Journal of Cancer Survivorship.

Progress in cancer biology and therapies means that greater numbers of patients who get cancer in childhood are surviving.

However, some groups of survivors are at an increased risk of health problems later in life - known as "late effects".

The researchers examined previous studies on the impact of breastfeeding and on the long-term health effects of surviving childhood cancer.

They identified three common "late effects" experienced by women who have survived childhood cancer.

These are: bone mineral density deficits; metabolic syndrome which can lead to obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease; and a risk of developing further cancers, particularly breast cancer.

Breastfeeding is known to lessen the risk in all three of these areas.

Risks and benefits

Bone mineralisation can be adversely affected by childhood cancer treatment and may mean some survivors are more likely to develop early-onset osteoporosis, or brittle bones.

The research now suggests that breastfeeding could help with this as, after weaning their children, the bone density of mothers who breastfeed often exceeds pre-pregnancy rates.

Metabolic problems, including increased body mass index, occur in higher rates in some childhood cancer survivors.

Those particularly affected include survivors of lymphocytic leukemia, testicular cancer and those who had bone marrow transplantations. Breastfeeding is known to reduce the incidence of obesity.

Survivors of childhood cancers are also at increased risk of getting cancer later in life, and the researchers say that women are are greater risk than men, because of breast cancer. Breastfeeding is associated with a reduced risk of breast cancer.

The researchers said it was clear that breastfeeding was a good option for childhood cancer survivors - but said it was important that primary care providers familiarise themselves with the late effects of cancer and cancer therapy.

Support

One late effect, however can be an inability to produce breast milk.

Women particularly likely to be affected are those who have had cancer therapies which affect their levels of growth hormone. Therapies which affect levels of growth hormone in children include the use of cranial radiation to treat brain tumours and central nervous system irradiation for leukemia.

Adequate levels of growth hormone is essential to the development of breasts, to enable them to lactate later in life.

Young women who have breast cancer treatment, either surgery or radiation, are also at risk of being unable to lactate later in life.

Researchers said it was precisely because of these difficulties that mothers who had survived cancer should be given particular support to breastfeed - wherever it was still possible for them to do so.

Researcher James Klosky said breastfeeding for this group made particular sense: "Our message is that breastfeeding, in addition to diet and exercise, avoiding tobacco use, and engaging in safe sexual behaviour, is one more behaviour that survivors of childhood cancer can engage in to promote health and potentially ameliorate adverse late effects of cancer treatment."

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