It’s October, which means our collective attention is turned to a disease most of us know too well—breast cancer. While the Keep A Breast Foundation, and international 501(c)(3), works year round on breast cancer education, early detection and empowerment programs, they also recognize that this is the best time of year to get people to sit up and pay attention. This is also why they have shared some important information related to breast health and pregnancy.
Our bodies are constantly changing. So many things, from where we are in our menstrual cycles, to how much caffeine we drink, can affect the way our boobs feel. This is part of why it’s hard for us to detect things in our breasts, and why we created the Check Yourself! App. We want people to familiarize themselves with their bodies at the same time in the menstrual cycle every month (about one week after your period, when your hormones are the most stable, and your boobs are at their most “normal”), because our bodies behave so differently throughout that cycle.
When going through pregnancy, things are even more difficult. Bodies change so drastically throughout pregnancy, childbirth, and postpartum that it is no surprise that this is a time where symptoms of breast cancer often get missed. Unfortunately, that is not the only correlation between pregnancy and breast cancer.
While in general, having children and breastfeeding lowers the risk of breast cancer in the long run, there is a window during pregnancy, and one to several years postpartum (there is a debate on the timeline) where breast cancer risk increases. Breast cancer diagnosed in this window is called Pregnancy-Associated Breast Cancer (PABC).
Over the years, we’ve come across a lot of women who have been diagnosed while pregnant or breastfeeding. This inspired us to look more into PABC to shed light on the matter and empower you with information on what you can do.
Some PABC Statistics
While it is very rare, PABC cases are increasing. The risk for PABC increases with age, and as women are having children later in life, PABC occurrences are increasing.
PABC is especially aggressive, and “women diagnosed within five years of their last childbirth were almost three times more likely to die than other similarly aged breast cancer patients who had not given birth.”
Why PABC Happens
With what we know about breast cancer, it makes sense that this is a time where something is more likely to develop. These are just some of the possible factors behind PABC:
The body is rapidly changing from pregnancy through postpartum. Lots of rapid bodily changes mean lots of cell division. Increased cell division means a higher chance of mistakes or cell mutation. There is also an increase in hormones like Estrogen and Progesterone at this time, both of which are linked to breast cancer. When breasts return to their pre-pregnancy state, there is an increased risk, as this process behaves similarly to inflammation in the body, which is also linked to breast cancer. Apparently, fetuses may weaken the immune system, making someone more vulnerable to diseases.
Pregnancy/Postpartum vs. PABC Breast Changes
On the one hand, it is common for things to be dismissed or mistaken as pregnancy/postpartum changes. However, it’s a time where people find things a lot, too. Think about it; if you’re breastfeeding, you’re most likely touching your breasts way more than you usually do. Plus, you’re probably visiting the doctor more than usual as well, so you have more regular access to them.
In 2017, Global News published an article called “Postpartum breast cancer: how to spot the signs while pregnant or breastfeeding.” Here is some great information from that to get you started on differences to note:
“You can get ducts that are blocked and that results in some swelling, you can get infections and that can cause masses and redness and pain, you can get collections of milk that build up and make a mass as well.”
…it’s normal for these lumps to be painful — when there is no pain, women should be concerned.
“Typically when you do have lumps related to blocked ducts or an infection, they are painful. They also tend to fluctuate — so they will get bigger or smaller depending on whether or not you’ve just breastfed.”
“Cancer, in general, is not painful. It doesn’t tend to change in the sense that it doesn’t fluctuate or come and go. It tends to be persistent and if anything, it might get larger.”
Please continue to do more research on your own, and talk to your doctor about the differences to look out for!
What You Can Do
Don’t let this info deter you from having kids or changing up your plans if you had an ideal age in mind. There’s a lot you can do to ease your mind and prepare yourself. Like just knowing that PABC is a possibility, so you can know what to look for.
- Educate yourself on other lifestyle and risk factors like exercise, diet, toxins, and genetics.
- Do the research and talk to your doctor about the differences between pregnancy/postpartum breast changes vs. cancerous breast changes.
- Check yourself regularly - it might be a good idea to write down what you feel since things will likely feel different often.
- Be your own health advocate. If you’re worried about something, say something, and don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself and insist on checks.
We understand that this information is scary. Starting or growing your family is supposed to be magical, and thinking that doing so could potentially cause cancer is horrifying. Plus, we know that you’re most likely focused on the health of your baby. We do not intend to spoil that for you; instead, we want to arm you with all the information we can. We don’t want you to think every milk duct or little change is cancer; we just want you to be aware of the heightened risk at this time, and to be as preventative as you can.
Download the Keep A Breast Check Yourself! app to learn to do a breast self-check & set up an automatic monthly reminder. Early detection is the key. For more information on the app or The Keep A Breast Foundation, please visit www.keep-a-breast.org.