When you’re pregnant you pay a lot of attention to your breasts. First they get bigger (and bigger…and bigger?!). Then, they start producing milk. And then you have a baby and spend most of each day feeding, pumping or tending to your sore nipples. But even with all this breast-centric behavior, you might be missing the most important thing of all: signs of breast cancer.
The risk for breast cancer increases immediately after every full-term pregnancy and stays higher for the next 10 years. According to research funded by the Avon Foundation for Women, the rates of pregnancy-associated breast cancer (PABC) peak between 5 and 7 years after giving birth. During this time, the risk of dying from breast cancer increases 2.5-fold. And this isn’t just for your first baby, but for every child after that, as well.
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The reason is that the same hormones that prepare your breasts for lactation can fuel the growth of cancerous cells. That is why, for the first 5 years after you have a baby, it is so important to watch for any changes in your breasts, including pains, lumps or discharge and call your OB/GYN or family doctor if you notice anything out of the ordinary.
Fortunately, there is a light at the end of this tunnel. Having and breastfeeding a child decreases your overall chances of breast cancer later in life (even though the danger actually goes up before it goes down). Scientists believe that when undeveloped or undifferentiated breast cells mature to start lactating, there is a change in their gene structure that protects against the disease. So women should try to start breast feeding within two hours of birth and continue to feed and pump for at least six months. Not only is it better for mom, but it’s especially important for your baby’s health.
As with most other serious medical conditions, there are no guarantees one way or another—and that is why awareness is so vitally important.
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