Can cancer treatment affect breastfeeding?
Chemotherapy medicine can pass from your body to your breastmilk and cause harm to your baby. It is recommended not to breastfeed while receiving chemotherapy.
Some people can continue to breastfeed while on radiation therapy, but this may depend on your specific type of treatment. It is best to ask your doctor whether it is safe to continue breastfeeding in your situation.
Targeted therapies are medicines that attack a specific cancer target. They are often not safe to use during breastfeeding.
General anaesthetic and sedation medicines used during surgery, or other procedures, quickly disappear from your blood and breastmilk after surgery. You can usually restart breastfeeding after your operation or procedure as soon as you are alert, stable and able to physically hold your baby. Local anaesthetic is often also safe while you breastfeed.
If your baby was born early (premature) or has a medical condition, they may be more at risk of being affected by a small amount of anaesthetic. Always ask for advice from your doctor if you have surgery planned and are breastfeeding your baby.
Can I breastfeed safely if I am being treated for breast cancer?
If you have breast cancer, the type of treatment you have will affect whether you can breastfeed. Surgery and radiotherapy can change the breast tissue. Radiotherapy, chemotherapy and targeted therapies are usually not safe during breastfeeding.
If you had minor breast surgery to remove the cancer, you may be able to breastfeed using both breasts. If you have had a mastectomy (breast removal) or a partial mastectomy, you may be able to breastfeed with the other breast. If you have had both breasts removed you will not be able breastfeed.
If you cannot produce enough breastmilk, you may be able to top-up with infant formula or your doctor may be able to suggest a medicine to increase your supply.
How can I feed my baby if I am unable to breastfeed?
All infant formulas sold in Australia follow strict guidelines to ensure they meet your baby's nutritional needs. If your baby has specific nutritional needs due to a medical condition, such as being born prematurely, you can discuss this with your paediatrician. Homemade infant formulas are not safe and are not recommended.
If your baby is born early, ask your doctor if they can have pasteurised donor human milk (PDHM) from a 'milk bank' in the neonatal intensive care (NICU) or special care nursery (SCN). PDHM is breast milk generously donated by carefully screened donors. It is carefully tested and heated (pasteurised) to reduce the risk of any infection.
What can I do if I feel disappointed that I am unable to breastfeed my baby?
It is understandable to feel a sense of loss and disappointment if you had planned to breastfeed your baby and aren't able to. There are many other ways you can develop a strong bond with your baby. This includes responding to their cues for comfort and talking to your baby.
Managing these feelings can be challenging when you are already coping with the emotions of cancer treatment. Discussing how you feel with people you trust can help you work through these emotions. If your feelings do not get better over time, or they affect your daily life and relationship with your baby, you may wish to discuss them with your doctor or a mental health professional.
Resources 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 the following:
- Perinatal Anxiety & Depression Australia (PANDA) — call 1300 726 306 to speak with a counsellor (Mon to Sat, 9am to 7.30pm AEST).
- The Cancer Council also provides free confidential telephone support on 13 11 20 (9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday).
- NSW Health as an information sheet on pasteurised donor human milk ('milk banks').
Speak to a maternal child health nurse
Call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby to speak to a maternal child health nurse on 1800 882 436 or video call. Available 7am to midnight (AET), 7 days a week.
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Last reviewed: June 2023