I’ve never loved my breasts. They were never really a focus for me, I guess, never my best physical attribute in my own opinion. All they were for most of my life was a source of monthly pain and something to be contained in a sports bra.
Until I breastfed my first daughter. I wasn’t and still am not a ‘lactivist.’ Fed is best, but I wanted to give breastfeeding a try to see if it worked for us.
It was painful, torturous almost, but it just felt right. There was a reason I had these two accessories. They weren’t sex toys or something to be shown off in a low-cut top. They were food. They sustained her little life. They were a very real, necessary physical connection between me and her long after the cord was cut. And even then, they became over achievers, putting supply in the freezer for months to come.
I was still nursing my second daughter when I found out I carried the BRCA1 genetic mutation. It seemed like such a contradiction at the time. Like the bomb in the teddy bear – offering comfort to a child while hiding something so malicious and dangerous. But I held onto that teddy bear with even more might the second time around. My peanut baby weaned herself before I was ready and I had to face the reality of the bombs strapped to my chest.
I started my screenings only after I was done breastfeeding. The MRIs, the mammograms felt so clinical. I felt distant from my own breasts as they hung in the MRI machine or were flattened in a mammogram. It was hard to believe just months before they were a critical focus of my day and my baby’s day and I looked at them with such pride.
Instead of thinking about feeding times or pumping supply, I was debating removing my breasts and whether I wanted to do that before we tried for a third baby or not. So the research began.
In the general population, breastfeeding for 12 months (cumulatively, not necessarily consecutively) can reduce your breast cancer risk by 4.3%. Science can’t really pinpoint why exactly this happens, but it’s thought that the cells in your breasts stabilize throughout nursing. Nursing also dampens your estrogen production and is a natural form of birth control, so that may have an effect. (If you ask me, it’s because deflated balloons have less in them to go rogue. If you’ve ever seen post-nursing boobs, you’d understand that.)
In my own family history, my grandmother raised my dad and his four siblings in the 50s at the height of formula development. Back then, many women were encouraged to use formula as the cutting edge in science so we believe she may not have breastfed for long, if at all. She developed bilateral breast cancer.Though they have not studied this in excess in those of us predisposed to breast cancer, a recent study showed that breastfeeding also reduced the occurrence of triple negative breast cancer – the kind that strikes in 75% of BRCA1 cases. The connection then could be made that it would have a positive impact on me.
My aunt, however, nursed three children for extended periods of time and never got breast cancer. She instead developed ovarian cancer.
As I looked at that I thought maybe – just maybe – breastfeeding is a deterrent in my family. Maybe I could delay the breast cancer long enough to have prophylactic surgeries and beat the ovarian cancer to the finish line, too.
I pumped through two long work trips so I could keep going a few more weeks. This week, I am holding on to those last moments of something that I’ll never have again.I decided my third baby would be my last baby, but also my last breastfeeding journey. One last happy memory with my breasts. I consulted with the plastic surgeon I’ve selected and know that I have to be done nursing for 4 to 6 months before I can go through with my mastectomy, but that gives us 6 good months of breastfeeding, a time period that will end this week.
After June, there will be no more teddy bear to hide the bombs.
**Photos by Danielle Pearce Photography**