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Health & Pregnancy

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Breastfeeding May Cut Breast Cancer Risk

Study Shows Benefit for Women With a Family History of Breast Cancer

Family History of Breast Cancer continued...

Among those with a family history, those who had breastfed had a 59% reduced risk for premenopausal breast cancer compared to those who never breastfed. The breastfeeding did not have to be exclusive breastfeeding, without formula use.

To understand better the difference between the overall risk reduction and the reduction in those with a family history, Stuebe offers this analogy: Suppose the Los Angeles Lakers and a group of 5-year-olds had a free-throw contest. Overall, the group may have made, say, 60% of the free throws. But when you look separately at the successful free throws made by the basketball stars vs. those made by the kids, the results will undoubtedly be driven entirely by the Lakers.

The risk reduction for women with a family history of breast cancer who breastfeed, Stuebe says, is comparable to that found in high-risk women who take hormonal treatments such as tamoxifen.

''For women without a family history," she tells WebMD, ''it may be that their rates of breast cancer are so low we don't detect a difference or there may not be a protective association."

The protective effect began with three months of breastfeeding, she tells WebMD. That's three months total, she says, not just for a single child. So a mother may have breastfed two children for a month and a half each and gotten the benefit, for instance.

Second Opinion

''It is a huge reduction in risk," says Amanda Phipps, a pre-doctoral research associate at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, of the nearly 60% decreased risk in women who breastfeed and have a family history of breast cancer.

''I find it very interesting," says Phipps, who has researched the link, too. "But I think because it is a rather novel finding it would need to be replicated in the literature."

In a study published in Cancer last year, Phipps and her colleagues found that certain breast cancer types may be rarer among women who breastfeed their babies for at least six months.

The biology to explain the link is not yet clear, Phipps says.

Even so, she calls the association "exciting" because breastfeeding is an action women can take to reduce their breast cancer risk, while many other risk factors -- such as having a family history -- are not modifiable.

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