U.S. Mothers Underestimate Role Breastfeeding Plays in Curbing Breast Cancer

Jill D. Pivovarov

January 06, 2021

The majority of women in the United States remain unaware of the benefits breastfeeding offers in reducing the risk of breast cancer, reported Adrienne Hoyt-Austin, DO, and colleagues at University of California, Davis.

Using nationally representative data collected from the 2015-2017 National Survey of Family Growth, Hoyt-Austin and colleagues analyzed responses to the question: "Do you think that breastfeeding decreases a woman's chances of getting breast cancer a lot, a little, or not at all, no opinion, or don't know?" A total of 5,554 female respondents aged 15-49 years participated. The response rate was 66.7%.

Multiparous Status and Education Play a Role in Decreased Awareness

Those who had given birth more than once, who had no more than a high school education, or who were U.S.-born Hispanic had the lowest level of awareness, believing that breastfeeding offers only "a little" protection. Of those who were aware of the link, 44% reported that breastfeeding provides "a lot" of protection, and foreign-born participants as well as those who breastfed for more than a year were more likely to conclude that breastfeeding offers "a lot" of protection. The researchers found that neither mammogram or personal family history of breast cancer had any bearing on awareness.

Although multiple studies have found breastfeeding to confer a lower rate of cancer risk, morbidity and mortality, with a 26% lower lifetime risk for those mothers who breastfeed for 12 months or longer, only 36% of women in the United States actually breastfeed.

Limited Data Indicate Whether Respondents Were Breastfed Themselves

"Public health initiatives must consider the complex roots of disparities in breastfeeding," noted Hoyt-Austin and colleagues. They acknowledged the subjectivity of perceptions of "a lot" versus "a little" and noted that the study was limited by a lack of data on whether participants were breastfed themselves.

Clinicians have an opportunity to play a key role in better educating families concerning the benefits of breastfeeding, both for mother and child, they advised. According to one recent study, just 5 minutes of counseling on the benefits of breastfeeding "significantly strengthened women's intentions to breastfeed.

In a separate interview, Amy E. Cyr, MD, FACS, section of surgical oncology at Washington University, St. Louis, noted that "many breast cancer risk factors – age, sex, family history, and age of menopause – are nonmodifiable." And while other risk factors, including alcohol use, diet, and exercise are controllable, "pregnancies and breastfeeding don't always go as planned," Cyr added.

"Although Hoyt-Austin et al. observed that many women aren't aware that breastfeeding decreases breast cancer risk – or to what extent (they cite a 26% cancer risk reduction after 12 or more months of breastfeeding) – most studies haven't shown that large a drop in breast cancer risk," she pointed out, adding that "I think it's an overstatement to suggest that breastfeeding reduces cancer risk by 'a lot,' as one of the survey choices offered in the study suggests."

Whether or not a woman breastfeeds depends not only on desire but on social and economic support and biology; for some, breastfeeding simply isn't an option. "I agree that we should educate women about the benefits of breastfeeding so they can make an informed decision for themselves and their infants, but we also need to acknowledge the complexity of this issue," she cautioned.

One coauthor reported a travel stipend by the Human Milk Banking Association of North America; Hoyt-Austin and the other authors had no conflicts of interest to report. Cyr had no conflicts of interest to report.

SOURCE: Hoyt-Austin A et al. Obstet Gynecol. 2020 Dec. doi: 10.1097/AOG.0000000000004162.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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