The challenges that come with breastfeeding after surviving breast cancer

Updated Oct 12 2015
Guest post by Koalani Roberts-Fodor
By: Steve SnodgrassCC BY 2.0
"The worst tyrants are those which establish themselves in our own breasts." – William Ellery Channing

I've always loved my tits, but they're not to be relied upon.

I was 28 the day I was diagnosed with breast cancer and began the time I call a "horrible inconvenience in an otherwise amazing life," but it was quite a bit more serious than that. I was 37 the day my son was born and latched onto my breast for his first comfort and perfect nourishment, but my milk never came in enough volume for him to thrive on it alone.

In between are a condensed lifetime of stories to tell about living and dying (we all do it, both things), nurses and doctors (horrible ones and one that is so good I owe him my life, literally, and even now I tell him that he and his team made this mothering life possible for me, because you can't just hope your way out of cancer, you usually need the knife, the drugs, the team). Stories about love and support, traditional healers and non-traditional healers (my aunt who came when I got chemo and gave lymphatic massages to heal my scars and move the drugs through my body), mind and body, hopes and fears, family and friends (Michelle, another young survivor I met through work and who lived across the country but shared the entire thing with me).

Stories of statistics and percentages, hair (that I rocked that short spiky cut the year after my hair grew back blows my mind, but it doesn't blow my mind as much as that I was 28 and would go to the grocery store bald because my wig was itchy and the scarf was ugly and who cared anyways because my head was perfect and it was a great day to be alive) and boobies (when you're through this you'll be dancing on chairs in bikinis and ball gowns and nobody will ever know the difference, my doctor told me, and it was true), women and men and boys and girls who don't survive even though they try EVERY BIT AS HARD AS I DID they just don't.

Stories about people without insurance or family support who don't get the amazing doctors, surgeries and experiments (the extra year of chemo with a new drug not used at that time for my Stage 2 cancer but thought to offer real results so my doctor says let's do it, not in a trial where you might get a placebo but let's just do it for real, and my job actually says yes health insurance will cover it, and the trial results later show its amazing success).

Stories about science, scans and setbacks, faith and fear (the Friday afternoon maybe three years after I finished treatment when a blood test showed something suspicious and my doc was away for the weekend and I thought for the only time ever that I really might die, because I never allowed myself to think what if it comes back, and I told my husband I'm just drinking tequila from now until Monday morning and he said ok and I did, but it turned out I'd taken a ton of allergy medication that messed with my counts of whatever they were counting, and it was a normal person problem not a cancer problem).

Stories about rock-solid determination.

Oh, and babies! Stories about babies I wanted to have but hadn't had yet, and how would I have them if I died, so I couldn't die, but I did wait to try, to be sure, really very sure, of everything (freezing my eggs wasn't an option but my doctors suggested I take another drug to put my body into temporary menopause and protect my ovaries during the chemo, and I did, and that drug, too, seemed to work, because when I wanted to get pregnant, more or less I did).

So today I am 42, and J is four-and-a-half. We are healthy and happy, living a beautiful life. I didn't need cancer to get to my place of peace; it wasn't that severe call to change my life that other survivors write about. In my cancer story, the diagnosis and treatment was a huge, out-of-nowhere inconvenience in an otherwise fabulous life that I believed I had the right to see fulfilled. And I didn't need to breastfeed my son to fill him with all the potential of a healthy young man. Except in MY mothering story, I had to do everything possible to nurse him, simply because I wanted to, I was driven to. I believed it was my right.

When I was first diagnosed, my dad asked, "How do you die from breast cancer?" Meaning, breasts aren't essential to life, couldn't you just remove the tumor or the breast and get back to it? Of course, you learn immediately all the essential organs the cells can spread to, parts you definitely need. But there's that immediate reaction that you don't actually need those boobies to live. Ah, or do you?

When I first had baby J, I had only the one breast to feed him from (the other one that had survived surgery, chemo, and radiation was likely too damaged to produce milk, though we diligently attempted to get him to latch on to that one also, because the literature said it was possible in some cases if the ducts didn't have too much scar tissue — plus I was a cancer survivor and I could do anything! right?).

But no matter what, in the part of my mind where I was Superwoman and Wonder Woman and had beaten cancer of all things, I planned to nurse him fully with the good one. I'd been told repeatedly for nine years, by every doctor whom I asked whether I could feed my hypothetical baby from my body, that SURE I could. Mothers of twins make enough milk to feed two, so I could make enough to feed one.

The lactation specialist finally said, you know, you don't need to nurse to be a mother. Ah, or do you?

I did need to nurse to be a mother, it was my right, but what I didn't know at the beginning was that I didn't have to do it the traditional way. In the beginning all that pinpoint focus I had before, I focused like that. I was single-minded, stubborn, invincible. The other breast could not fail me, too.

It's no surprise I tackled my breastfeeding challenge with such determination. After all, I'd already had so many doctors feel me up, scan me, cut me, drug me, cure me, heal me. I'd gone through cancer treatments with equal parts research, blind faith and the determination of a psychopath. My little breastfeeding challenge would be no different.

I read, I visited lactation specialists, I attended support groups, I went to the naturopath, the OB/GYN, the pediatrician, my oncologist. I formed a team, and they, too, wanted me to nurse. Wanting it would make it so, right? I brewed herbs into foul tasting tea, I took drugs, I pumped, I used a supplemental nurser (a flask of formula with a tube taped to my nipple, so baby J could nurse from me and get formula at the same time, theoretically stimulating my body to make all the milk he wanted while feeding him plenty in the meantime). I WANTED IT.

But sometimes, just like so many people who are faced with an illness and do everything right and don't survive, sometimes feeling invincible, feeling like Wonder Woman, it isn't enough.

We are made as we are, and that's what we have to live our lives with, in the very best way we can.

Sometimes our breasts let us down, and we just have to deal with it. It doesn't mean we did anything bad, it doesn't mean we didn't take care of ourselves, it doesn't we are less woman, less mother, less anything. It just means we're each made differently, bones and muscle, flesh and milk ducts, hopes and dreams, and wants and realities. We are made as we are, and that's what we have to live our lives with, in the very best way we can.

So I made peace with my beautiful boobies. I threw out the herbs, donated the drugs and returned the hospital pump. I never did make enough milk for baby J, but I kept going with the supplemental nurser to the end. He might not have received all of his calories from my body, but my body nourished him. That was the thing I had to do, I finally realized. I had to snuggle him after he nursed, not set him down so I could pump. I had to hold him at my chest and talk to him and make silly faces. Yes, I was able to feed him milk from my breast, but more than that, I fed him at my breast.

Baby J weaned himself one day at 10 months old. He'd been tapering off for several months, and recently walked, so it wasn't a surprise. We flew to Hawai'i for Christmas and I tried to nurse him on the plane. He looked at me as if I'd stuck a shoe in his mouth and never asked for the breast again. He'd arrived. He was on an airplane, having an adventure, ready to take on the world.

  1. While I'm happily childfree, I had to read this & I'm glad I did — I start chemo next week for breast cancer. "the diagnosis and treatment was a huge, out-of-nowhere inconvenience in an otherwise fabulous life that I believed I had the right to see fulfilled" THIS SO MUCH. Also the whole graph starting "Sometimes our breasts let us down…"

    Thanks for sharing your story. Congrats on surviving & having the life & the family you do.

    • Trystan, damn it. I'm mad for you. Powerful thoughts of health and happiness. I can say very little with certainty, except that our minds are strong.

  2. Thank you so much for this story. My mom was diagnosed with breast cancer when I was 12 and past away this past April. I miss her a lot, and on top of that, I worry for myself and my own kids (none yet, but one day!). I make sure to check myself and go the doctor and do everything I'm supposed to for prevention, but knowing there is a whole community out there really helps a lot. Thank you so much for sharing.

    • Colleen, I'm so sorry for your loss! 12 is so young. I think I was diagnosed at a time of transition in care and treatment, really. I benefitted from some "new" things that are standard now, that probably were made available to me because I was so young, and doctors were so intrigued by my case. Knowing your body is important, tuning into yourself. I won't say I wasn't really happy to find out I was pregnant with a son and not a daughter, so that I could remove a bit of that concern.

  3. As someone with a possible genetic risk of breast cancer (My father had breast cancer a few years ago. He seems to be doing fine, now, but breast cancer in men is more likely to indicate a genetic vulnerability to it) and scared by that, I found this story actually quite comforting. It is reassuring to hear "I had breast cancer. It sucked, but it wasn't the end of the world."

    • It sucked. But it wasn't the end of the world. There. Said it again. 🙂 And i had no indicators, no other family members then or since disgnosed. Just the bad luck of the draw.

  4. Thank you for posting your story! It has been so helpful to me through infertility and breast cancer to hear of other people going through the same things! I am now 30 and got the go-ahead yesterday from my oncologist to try to get pregnant, so we're planning our fertility treatment! I had a mastectomy on one side, so I'm still hoping to attempt to breastfeed with the remaining breast (if we ever get pregnant, we've been trying for over 3 years), but I look at it as a bonus if it works, because my body has betrayed me so much! Thank you again for your perspective and writing about this issue!

    • Best of luck to you!!! I got pregnant easily when first tried, then miscarried, again with the betrayals. Second try took a bit longer.

    • Interestingly of my three best mom friends, two used fertility treatments to become pregnant (for entirely non cancer or age related reasons) and one had a very early preemie and almost died. All are now healthy. All have beautiful, healthy children. The moral being, you just never know. I believe you will get those babies you desire.

  5. "Sometimes our breasts let us down, and we just have to deal with it. It doesn't mean we did anything bad, it doesn't mean we didn't take care of ourselves, it doesn't we are less woman, less mother, less anything. It just means we're each made differently, bones and muscle, flesh and milk ducts, hopes and dreams, and wants and realities. We are made as we are, and that's what we have to live our lives with, in the very best way we can."

    Oh, you mad me cry with this 🙂 My boy is 6-months old and I haven't been able to produce enough milk to feed him. I didn't know I wanted to breastfeed until he was worn, but it hasn't been possible. I'm trying to get over this. He's healthy, happy, growing a lot and has a family that adores him. Where the milk comes from is not important. Thank you so much for sharing your story.

    • Maria, I'm so sorry to hear you're having trouble nursing. It is a primal need for many mothers. I know for me, I had a lot of "But I can't feed my child!" like, all rationality had left my brain. Like my not being able to nurse meant I'd left him on the side of the road somewhere. I could easily feed him a bottle. But it just "didn't count." Until I realized that it did. Having a healthy, happy baby is the only thing that matters.

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