The News Story – Could half of all breast cancers be prevented?
News sources this week highlighted a new study demonstrating that were women to make healthier lifestyle choices and even take preventive drugs, “fully half of breast cancers in the U.S. might be avoided.”
Among the habits that the researchers encourage women to adopt are getting more exercise, keeping weight gain down, eating plenty of fruits and vegetables, and avoiding excessive alcohol consumption. The Reuters story focused most of its attention on such non-controversial recommendations, but one almost-buried line mentions that, “if they have children,” women should breastfeed to help prevent cancer.
The lack of attention to this crucial preventative is unfortunate, for it indicates that, in spite of all medical evidence that indicates the extreme benefits of breastfeeding, the media is afraid to encourage a practice best associated with marriage and stay-at-home motherhood.
The New Research – Pink ribbons and mothers’ milk
Using data gleaned from 47 epidemiological studies in 30 countries that relate to breastfeeding patterns and childbearing, researchers associated with the Collaborative Group on Hormonal Factors in Breast Cancer were able to examine the links between breastfeeding and breast cancer. All told, the studies accounted for almost 150,000 women: “50,302 women with invasive breast cancer and 96,973 controls.”
The authors contend that “more than 80% of the worldwide epidemiological data on breast cancer and breastfeeding” were included in their study, all of which, from 1920, points to the same conclusion. Namely: breastfeeding lowers the risk of breast cancer. Not only that, but the longer a woman breastfeeds, the more the risk is attenuated. Moreover, childbirth also lowers the risk, even without breastfeeding. The authors state unequivocally: “Our analyses here show that the relative risk of breast cancer is reduced by 4.3% (95% CI 2.9–5.8) for each year that a woman breastfeeds, in addition to a reduction of 7.0% (5.0–9.0) for each birth. These relations are significant and are seen consistently for women from developed and developing countries, of different ages and ethnic origins, and with various childbearing patterns and other personal characteristics.”
Sadly, most women in developed countries do not have many children, nor do they tend to breastfeed for long the children they do have: only about 50% of American mothers ever breastfeed, and the average duration of breastfeeding per child is only about three months. Indeed, the researchers found that “the lifetime duration of breastfeeding was much shorter for women in developed than developing countries (average 8.7 and 29.2 months, respectively, in controls).”
The authors suggest that, “if women had larger family sizes and longer lifetime durations of breastfeeding . . . , the cumulative incidence of breast cancer in developed countries is estimated to be reduced by more than half . . . by age 70 years.” While some of this reduction can be attributed to a larger family size, almost “two-thirds is due to breastfeeding.”
The authors conclude with the following scandalous–and perfectly pro–family–recommendation: “Based on the estimates obtained here, if women in developed countries had 2.5 children, on average, but breastfed each child for 6 months longer than they currently do, about 25,000 (5%) breast cancers would be prevented each year, and if each child were breastfed for an additional 12 months about 50,000 (11%) breast cancers might be prevented annually.” Now that’s a public policy suggestion that saves lives, and families.
(Source: Bryce J. Christensen, “New Research,” The Family in America, August 2002, Vol. 16 Number 8. Study: Valerie Beral, et al, [Collaborative Group on Hormonal Factors in Breast Cancer], “Breast cancer and breastfeeding: collaborative reanalysis of individual data from 47 epidemiological studies in 30 countries, including 50,302 women with breast cancer and 96,973 women without the disease,” The Lancet, Volume 360, Number 9328 [20 July 2002], p. 187-195.)