Cancer treatments can affect many areas of your life. If you are pregnant or a mother of young children, there are extra challenges. For example, cancer treatment can affect your ability to breastfeed safely and effectively. However, your medical team will be able to support and advise you at this time.
How can cancer treatment affect breastfeeding?
Cancer treatment can affect breastfeeding in several ways. You may need to have radiation therapy or take strong medicines — including chemotherapy — which can cross into your breast milk and are harmful to babies. If you have breast cancer, you may need surgery on one or both breasts, which can affect their ability to produce milk.
You might only need to take medicines for a short time —for example, before certain scans or during surgery — but the medicines can also be passed on to your baby through your breast milk.
Every case of cancer is treated differently, but your doctor will support and advise you on whether it is safe to start or continue breastfeeding.
Can I breastfeed safely if I need to have surgery for cancer?
If you have surgery while you are breastfeeding, you may need to have an anaesthetics or other medicines. If you are breastfeeding, your doctor might be able to choose a different medicine from the one normally used — so long as the alternative medicine is safer for your baby. You can usually continue to breastfeed as soon as you wake after surgery, but you should check with your doctor before you return to breastfeeding, just to be sure.
You could also consider expressing breast milk before your surgery. Just make sure the hospital is prepared and that the milk is safely stored.
Can I breastfeed safely while receiving ongoing cancer treatment?
Many people who have cancer need treatment with x-rays (known as radiotherapy) or strong medicines (chemotherapy) which kill fast-growing cells, such as cancer cells. These treatments can stay in your blood for some time after you take them and they can also cross into your breast milk. Since these medicines are very strong, they can be harmful for babies even in small amounts. Your doctor may advise you not to breastfeed while you are taking them.
Can I breastfeed safely if I am being treated for breast cancer?
If you have breast cancer, the type of treatment you need will affect whether you can breastfeed safely. Some women need only minor breast surgery to remove the cancer, an operation known as a lumpectomy. If this applies to you, you will most likely be able to start or continue breastfeeding — check with your doctor first though.
Other women who need to have a breast partially or completely removed due to cancer may find it harder to produce enough milk to breastfeed exclusively, though many women successfully breastfeed using only one breast.
If you need to have radiotherapy, chemotherapy or treatment with other anti-cancer medicines following surgery, it is unlikely you will be able to breastfeed safely. However, you should discuss your options with your doctor.
How can I feed my baby if I am unable to breastfeed?
While breast milk is the best option for babies, there are many good alternatives available. You can be confident that all infant formulas sold in Australia will meet your baby’s nutritional needs. If your baby has specific nutritional needs due to a medical condition — such as being born prematurely — you might like to discuss the options with their paediatrician.
Many Australian hospitals follow the ‘Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative’ and so may not provide baby formula in the hospital. If you know you will need to start bottle feeding straight after your baby is born, you may wish to bring your own supplies to the hospital with you.
I feel disappointed that I am unable to breastfeed my baby. What can I do?
It is natural to feel a sense of loss and disappointment if you had planned to breastfeed your baby. Managing these feelings can be even more challenging when you are already coping with the ups and downs of cancer treatment. Discussing how you feel with people you trust can help you work through these emotions. There are also many other ways you can develop a strong bond with your baby — even if you cannot breastfeed.
If your feelings of disappointment do not improve over time, or they interfere with your daily life and your relationship with your baby, you may wish to discuss them with your doctor or a mental health professional.
Who can I talk to for more information and support?
Everyone’s experience of cancer and breastfeeding is different. If you have questions or concerns about breastfeeding during your cancer treatment, you can see your doctor for more information and support.
There are also many organisations you can turn to for more information and support, including:
- Call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby to speak to a maternal child health nurse on 1800 882 436 or video call(7am to midnight (AET), 7 days a week).
- Perinatal Anxiety and Depression Australia (PANDA) on 1300 726 306 (9am to 7.30pm, Monday to Friday)
- Australian Breastfeeding Association on 1800 686 268 (24 hours a day, 7 days a week)
- The Cancer Council also provides free confidential telephone support on 13 11 20 (9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday).
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Last reviewed: June 2021