I was among the many who were shocked to learn that this spring the United States pushed Ecuador to drop a resolution in support of breastfeeding it had intended to introduce in Geneva for the United Nations-affiliated World Health Assembly.
The benefits of breastfeeding for the baby are well documented. (Not all women are able to breastfeed and babies who are not breastfed do fine.) Even so, for years, infant formula manufacturers tried to convince new mothers that formula is better and easier. That’s a controversy in and of itself. What I want to focus on here is how breastfeeding benefits women.
Breastfeeding is known to reduce breast cancer risk. For example, a study published last year in the Journal of Preventive Medicine & Public Health by researchers in Korea that compared women who had been diagnosed with breast cancer with women who had not had breast cancer found that women who had two or more children and breastfed for a total of 13 months were half as likely to get breast cancer as women who had never given birth and never breastfed.
Yet, not all women have heard or been told about this benefit. A study published last year in the Asian Pacific Journal of Cancer Prevention found that only 6.2% of 566 women in Northern Saudi Arabia who were surveyed knew that natural breastfeeding reduced the risk of breast cancer.
As some of you may know, we have been trying to map the anatomy of the breast ducts (where breast cancer starts) for several years. One of my “brilliant” ideas to figure out the anatomy was to use ultrasound to take images of lactating women who had milk in their ducts. The saga is a good example of the path of research: one step forward, two steps back. For the study, we invited women who were breastfeeding to come with their babies for a whole breast ultrasound of their breast. We did an ultrasound when their breasts were full and then again after they fed their infants. (I had a wonderful time holding the babies!) With help from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology, we analyzed the images, and we noticed something interesting: Not all of the ducts were making milk. The lower outer ducts in each breast were the first to make milk. Only as the babies got older and demanded more milk, did more ducts take part. The last duct to be called into action—when the babies were about 8 to 9 months old—was in the upper outer quadrant of the breast. This was particularly interesting to us because more breast cancers begin here than in the other quadrants, and it made us wonder: Could this be because this duct gets used less?
So, we set out to study women who had been breastfeeding long enough to have all their ducts called into action. We found two of these women in Northern California, and went there to take images of their breast ducts. These images didn’t provide us with the information we were hoping for, so we decided to try again. We just finished this second attempt. We are still analyzing the images—and I look forward to letting you know what we learn.
Once we have our map of the breast ducts, there is one more question I am determined to answer: What happens after a woman stops breastfeeding? Does the breast go back to normal? The breast is the only organ that a woman is not born with. Girls are born with stem cells that sit behind the nipple until puberty begins, when they turn on and start to grow ducts. Do the stem cells make new ducts if you have a second child? Can you look at the ducts of a 50- or 60-year-old woman and know whether or not she has ever breastfed? These are the questions I dream about.
The human breast is understudied and underappreciated and we at Dr. Susan Love Research Foundation believe there is no way we can fully understand breast cancer if we don’t even understand the breast ducts. We are bound and determined to figure out how those ducts work and why they get cancer. With this information in hand, we can take the next and most important step: preventing breast cancer, once and for all.