Breastfeeding With Breast Cancer: What to Know

Medically Reviewed by Jennifer Robinson, MD on August 11, 2022
3 min read

Breast or bottle? The answer’s not so simple if you have breast cancer.

You might wonder if it’s safe or even possible to nurse your baby. It generally depends on your treatment plan. Though you can’t pass cancer to your baby, some of the medicines you might need to treat your condition can be harmful to them.

Breastfeeding might be an extra challenge while you’re also facing breast cancer, but in many cases, it is possible. Here’s what you need to know.

If you want to breastfeed, talk to your doctor. They can tell you whether it’s safe, based on the kind of treatment you’re getting and when you’ll get it.

Your doctor will probably recommend that you stop or don’t start breastfeeding if you need certain treatments, such as:

Chemotherapy, hormone therapy, and targeted therapies. Many of these drugs pass into breast milk and can affect a nursing baby. But you may be able to pause breastfeeding during your treatment and start again once it’s over and your doctor says it’s safe.

Surgery. If you need surgery, your doctor might suggest that you stop breastfeeding. This will lower blood flow to your breasts and make them smaller, which helps during an operation. Your risk of infection in the breast might also be lower if you don’t breastfeed.

Some women are able to breastfeed while they get radiation therapy. It depends on the type of radiation you need. Your doctor can help you figure out whether it’s safe.

If you’re not able to breastfeed, your baby will still get the nutrition they need from formula.

Your chances of survival are much better if you spot breast cancer early on. But the hormonal changes that happen in pregnancy or while you nurse can make lumps harder to detect. That means some women who breastfeed don’t catch their cancer until it’s at a more advanced stage.

Symptoms to look for include:

  • A lump in your breast or underarm area
  • Changes in the size or shape of your breast
  • A dimple in the skin of your breast
  • Red, scaly, or swollen skin on your breast, nipple, or areola (the skin around your nipple)
  • A nipple that turns inward
  • Fluid or bloody nipple discharge that isn’t breast milk
  • Dimples in your breast that look like the skin of an orange

If you choose to breastfeed with breast cancer:

Pump to keep up your milk supply. If you plan to go back to nursing after your treatment ends, it’s a good idea to pump during cancer treatments or before you have surgery. (You’ll have to throw the breast milk away if you’re taking chemo, targeted therapy, or hormone therapy medicines.) Pumping will make your body think you’re breastfeeding, so it’ll keep making milk. Once your treatment or procedure ends, you can breastfeed again.

Expect setbacks. If you’ve had surgery or radiation, you might not make as much milk. Or changes in your breast may make it harder for your baby to nurse. While these challenges can make the process harder, many women are able to overcome them.

Hire an expert. A lactation consultant can support you through the process.

Talk to your doctor. You’ll probably have lots of questions. Good communication is important if you decide to breastfeed while you have breast cancer.