Continuing my series on breastfeeding, my friend Danielle is a breast cancer survivor who also breastfed her daughter. I asked her to share her experiences here because I think it is so important to recognize the different paths for everyone with respect to breastfeeding. Danielle’s story is particularly unique and I am so thankful she is willing to share it with all of you.
Hi! I’m Danielle and I just turned 35. My daughter is Madeline and she is almost 14 months. I am excited and honored that Katie asked me to share my experience with breastfeeding because it is definitely a different path than a lot of other women have experienced. This is because at age 27 I was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer.
Cancer in my 20s?
So like I said, age 27, breast cancer. What terrible luck, am I right? My mom had just been diagnosed in July 2013 with stage 1 breast cancer and that was pretty scary, but they caught it early and her treatment would be easy, breezy. Fast forward to October 2013. I felt a suspicious, rock hard lump on my chest, just above my right breast. Well actually my boyfriend at the time (now husband) felt it but get your mind out of the gutter. It was literally so massive I don’t know how I missed it or how people didn’t see it when looking at me. I immediately thought the worst because of my mom but also thought it was impossible I could have cancer because again, I was 27. I’ll make this quick but it was, in fact, cancer. And since it was stage 2 I did not get the easy breezy treatment that my mom did. They gave me the impossible choice of deciding whether to have a double mastectomy to remove both of my breasts or risk a recurrence or cancer in the other breast by only having a lumpectomy. I was only dating my husband at the time, we had no immediate plans to get married or have children, but the thought of losing both of my breasts at such a young age was unimaginable. Not to mention the decisions I had to make to preserve my fertility through treatments. Let’s just say it was A LOT.
Just before Christmas 2013, I had a lumpectomy. I chose not to freeze my eggs because it was expensive and I was financing this cancer treatment on my own while continuing to work full-time as an accountant. During the first half of 2014, I had 8 rounds of chemo (lost my hair in the process), and 33 rounds of radiation. I also had to have Lupron injections to put me into menopause to attempt to preserve my eggs. I had no idea if my body would be able to reproduce after all of this and that was really scary. Since my type of cancer was hormone-receptor-positive, I had to go on Tamoxifen for 5 years post-treatment to help prevent it from returning. This meant no babies for 5 years.
In late 2018, my oncologist gave me his blessing to go off of tamoxifen after only 4 years. I was 32 and not getting any younger. I had no sign of cancer and I was eager to start a family with my husband (we got married in 2016). By some miracle, I got pregnant on our second month trying. I truly did not know it would happen so quickly and I thank God every day that although he put me through cancer in my 20s, at least he didn’t throw fertility struggles in there as well.
I never even considered breast-feeding. I wasn’t breast-fed, and my sister, who had 3 kids by this point, also didn’t breastfeed so I didn’t have much exposure to it. Studies show that breastfeeding helps reduce the risk of breast cancer though so I thought I owed it to myself and my baby to at least consider it. I asked my doctors if it would even be possible. My “cancer boob” was clearly not going to produce milk. Throughout my pregnancy, as my left breast got larger, my right breast stayed the same. I started having to pad my bra on the right side so I looked less lop-sided. My doctor’s only advice was “try”. I scoured the internet for others who tried breastfeeding after breast cancer, and as expected, there just wasn’t a lot out there. Not many people have the misfortune of experiencing this disease before their child-bearing years, but it happens more than you think.
My daughter, Madeline, was born in November 2019 via emergency c-section (God wasn’t letting me off the hook THAT easily). We immediately attempted breastfeeding in the hospital. My fears were right about my “cancer boob” and only my left breast produced milk. Madeline struggled to gain weight in the hospital so we had to supplement with formula pretty early on. I put a lot of pressure on myself to make this breastfeeding thing work. We had a lot of weight check doctor’s appointments in those early weeks. We visited with a lactation consultant. I measured my self-worth by how much or how little I was able to pump from my one working breast. It was so hard. The easy part was not having to worry about 2 breasts (which side did I feed from last?, in particular). When Madeline was about 2 months old, I realized that I couldn’t keep up with her demand with my one breast and started supplementing with formula on a regular basis. At this point, I switched to almost exclusively pumping so that I could mix her bottles. She was growing and thriving, but I was miserable. Once I went back to work in February 2020, I knew I couldn’t keep up with the pumping. We switched to formula and never looked back. I know so many women who have beautiful breastfeeding journeys for a year and beyond, but that just wasn’t going to be our experience.
I am so thankful I tried. I am so thankful my body allowed me to give Madeline at least some breast milk. I am so thankful that my body allowed me to conceive and birth this perfect human and that I might benefit in some small way by possibly reducing my risk of breast cancer in the future. I am thankful for our quiet nights together nursing and what she taught me about myself and my determination, letting go of expectations, and allowing myself to give her everything she needed to thrive. I will never regret for one second the journey breastfeeding took me on, and I am happy with where we ended up. I was able to breastfeed my daughter for 3 months when my original expectation was “will it even be possible?”. I’m pretty dang proud of that.
Disclaimer: This blog post contains the authors researched opinions as well as actual experiences, and not one of a medical professional. Please consult to your medical professional for their official opinion on items referenced here, and defer to them in case of any conflict.