Maybe because the news media
seems unable to focus on more than one women's health
story at a time, some of the most important breast
cancer news in years got buried last summer, amidst
the attention given to other studies that grabbed headlines
and hogged broadcast time.
That news? That breastfeeding reduces breast cancer
risk. Says Oxford University epidemiologist Valerie
Berall Ph.D., lead author of a study published in a
July 2002 issue of the prestigious British medical journal
The Lancet, "We looked at all kinds of
different characteristics: age when [women] had their
child[ren], whether they smoked or drank alcohol, how
tall they were, how many children they had; and this
4.3 percent [lifetime] risk reduction [per year of breastfeeding]
seemed to be pretty across-the-board." The study,
called a "meta-analysis" by epidemiologists,
re-analyzed data from smaller studies involving almost
150,000 women from 30 countries worldwide.
For an individual, a 4.3 percent risk reduction per
year of breastfeeding might not seem that high. And
Beral agrees. "For an individual, we can't definitively
say, you'll benefit."' But within a large population,
such as that of the United States, increasing the total
amount of breastfeeding "will really make a difference" in
overall breast cancer rates, Berall says.
In fact, Beral and her collaborators found that breastfeeding
alone is responsible for "almost half the difference" between
the generally high breast cancer rates in the West
and the relatively low rates in the developing
world. During the time periods studied, Western women
had, on average, 2.5 children and breastfed them
a couple of months each, if at all. By contrast,
women in the developing world had much larger families--
or seven children-- and breastfed each for about
two years. The researchers found that the estimated
of breast cancer in industrialized countries would
fall from 6.3 per 100 to 2.7 per 100 if women had
sizes and breastfeeding patterns typical of developing
is also noteworthy because, "This is the first
[study] to sort out the risk reduction from having
kids versus the reduction from breastfeeding,"
explains Cindy Pearson, executive director of the
Washington D.C.-based National
Women's Health Network (NWHN), an advocacy group.
(Giving birth confers to mothers a lifetime risk reduction
of 7 percent per birth.)
If each woman
in the U.S. breastfed each of her two children for
six months longer than she does now, Beral and her
colleagues conclude, the number of new breast cancer
cases in the U.S. could be reduced by more than 7,500
each year. "Even a little, little bit [of increase]
has an effect," Beral believes. "It's not
trivial." The U.S. breast cancer rates are some
of the highest in the world, with 190,000 new cases
diagnosed each year, and breastfeeding rates, while
improving, are notoriously low.
The problem, as many nursing mothers will tell you,
is that breastfeeding in the U.S. is particularly
difficult. While most industrialized countries offer
mandatory paid maternity leave, the U.S. does not.
"And the challenge of combining working and breastfeeding
is beyond what many mothers are willing to take on,"
explains Amy Spangler, MN, IBLCLC, chair of the U.S.
Breastfeeding Committee, an umbrella organization
that promotes breastfeeding.
JUMP TO PAGE 1