Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Triumphant Tuesday: Breastfeeding After Breast Cancer

By breastfeeding her baby, a mother is giving life. She is literally keeping her child alive through the power of her body. However, what if the mother's life is in danger? Surely being faced with a breast tumour would excuse a mother from breastfeeding duties? To this mother, it was a matter of priorities, and she prioritised her baby. This is Amanda's story.

I'll put it out there...and own it. In America, we are not a breastfeeding society. We know the research has proven breast milk to be superior over formula, but still the idea of breastfeeding gives a lot of people the heebie jeebies. While I was pregnant I was bombarded with stories about how difficult and painful breastfeeding was, and how a lot of people tried but never even made it out of the starting gate. At the same time, everyone and their dog would ask me if I planned on breastfeeding. Some people would ask multiple times. 

My answer was always the same, "I'm going to try, but if it doesn't work out for me and my family then it is no big deal to use formula." (All the self described "crunchy" moms are probably throwing up in their mouths as they read that). I didn't want to set myself up for disappointment and frankly what difference was it to me whether the little sea monkey in my belly drank milk from nature’s tap or milk from a bottle? 

Birth overshadowed by pessimism

When my son was born, it suddenly made a difference. Seeing him struggle to latch on, while listening to a chorus of nurses tell me that he might not be able to breastfeed and I didn't have enough colostrum, devastated me in a way I could have never anticipated. I at least wanted to be given the option to breastfeed. 

Those first few days in the hospital were a roller coaster of emotions. After speaking with a lactation consultant I discovered that I did have colostrum after all...those nurses were idiots..but my son had difficulty latching and my boobs struggled to keep up with my baby walrus' increasing demands. 

I was outfitted with all sorts of alien devices to help the process: nipple shields, a breast pump, collection containers, etc. Overwhelmed was the understatement of the century. I had no idea that breastfeeding could be THAT complex. 

Every time I hooked those breast flanges up and started pumping, I felt like Bessie the freaking cow. Honestly, that happens to this day! I'm not sure my boobs will ever be viewed as sexual objects again. They've become a sort of freaky sideshow act. "Look how far I can shoot milk out of this one babe!" But I digress..

Clogged nipple pores

Next on the menu for me was clogged nipple pores, clogged ducts, and reoccurring mastitis. For those of you who don't know, a clogged nipple pore looks a bit like a pimple.. on your actual nipple. Super hot, right? And it feels a bit like a scalding branding iron every time you go to nurse. Now, I've got your attention! Eight hundred episodes of TLC's Make Room for Baby did NOT prepare me for that shit. On the other hand, a clogged duct feels a bit like you got donkey punched in the tit. Super sore. 


If you are lucky enough to get mastitis, the mother of all boob ailments, then you are in for a real treat! I've had it a few times now..which I'm positive equates to like six tear drops in prison. Mastitis hits you like a ton of bricks. You suddenly just don't feel right. Perhaps, you're coming down with something? A few short hours later and your boob is painted with fire-engine red stripes, you have chills, body aches, and a fever that hovers around 104. If you're anything like me, you have no idea what the f#&k is going on the first time it happens. Hmm..is my boob supposed to be swollen like a Guatemalan cantaloupe? Basically, mastitis is when the shit hits the fan. They pump you full of antibiotics, fluids, and fever reducers. If that doesn't work you have to be hospitalized. HOSPITALIZED! How hardcore is that? Breastfeeding is not for the faint-hearted. (And you thought we were all a bunch of smelly, Pansie hippies).

Despite these hurdles, breastfeeding is a bond that I knew I wanted to share with my son. There was something so beautifully primal about it. So simple. It felt right. However one day I decided to supplement with formula a few times after my son’s hungry cries got the best of me. Giving him formula made me feel like a failure. Defective. Like I was giving up on breastfeeding. Then, nature threw me a curve-ball...

Discovery of a lump

When I was trying to get my son to latch on, I noticed a lump in my breast. I mentioned it to my obgyn at the 2 week appointment. She suggested an ultrasound. I followed through with her request and when the results came through – they were inconclusive. 

I was then referred to a doctor who specialised in breasts. And this is what she said:

"We're worried it might be cancer."

I didn't answer right away. What was there to say? This wasn't candid camera, some sick joke, or even a bad dream. This was my new reality. A life where I might have breast cancer. In an instant I was bombarded with horrific mental images of hospitals, chemotherapy treatments, and even tombstones. I was petrified. 

My eyes misted over. I felt the weight of everyone's gaze upon me but I wasn't ready to address the elephant in the room. Instead, I found myself looking down, losing myself in the blue/grey abyss that I knew as my baby's eyes.

The squirming bundle in my arms was blissfully oblivious. My son was only a few weeks old at the time, practically brand new, and here I was contemplating a life for him,without a mommy. It didn't seem fair. As if the emotional roller coaster of new motherhood wasn't difficult enough, I now had to contend with this. I didn't feel strong enough.

After 24 years, I had finally found my calling in life. My joy. My passion. My son. And it was all crumbling out from under me. I was drowning. Encumbered by the many questions in my head, I could barely catch my breath.  Why me? Why our family?

Whether unsympathetic or unaware, the doctor droned on about the medical protocol, while I bargained with my God. She told me that we would start with a core punch needle biopsy and "go from there." 

While the gravity of the situation was apparent to me, I still found myself preoccupied with the baby's well being. I only caught snippets of what the doctor was saying, and they put me in a panic. 

"....and I suggest that you discontinue breastfeeding immediately." 

Discontinue? But, how will I feed him? How can he nurse? We had overcome so many obstacles in learning to breastfeed. Now it all seemed for naught. 

Looking back, I am confident that this specialist utilized scare tactics to ensure that I underwent an extremely costly ultrasound guided needle biopsy. I didn't have any insurance at the time, and I mentioned that I would need to "shop" around because I didn't have the 2 grand just lying around. Instead of suggesting payment plans, or another doctor, the specialist tried, and succeeded, to terrify me. She told me she was pretty confident I had cancer and was wasting precious time. She stated that she simply didn't want to see my son grow up without a mother. Essentially she preyed on a young, hormonal mom.


Anywho, I went through with the needle guided ultrasound biopsy. The four day wait that preceded the results was agonizing. I was weepy and irritable. My nerves were frayed from living in a perpetual state of fear and I found myself lashing out at the ones I loved most

The results were cautiously optimistic. The Pathology report suggested a non-malignant, lactating fibroadenoma. Because the specialist was such a quack, I ended up with a terrible case of mastitis. She also pushed me from beginning to end, to quit breastfeeding my little boy. He was only weeks old! I wasn't having it. After the surgery, I pumped round the clock to try and keep my supply up. My milk was full of blood and the baby was uninterested in nursing from the affected side for about a week. But we prevailed! I was told to keep an eye on the tumor, and have another ultrasound in 6 months. When I did, the results were fishy again. They "strongly suggested that I follow-up with my physician as abnormalities had been noted in the films." As if no time had passed, I plummeted down the rabbit-hole again. The all too familiar sense of foreboding enveloped me and the haunting images came flooding back. 

My once squirming bundle was now a mischievous and adventurous, 7.5 month old ball of wonderment and giggles. The thought of being separated from him, temporarily or indefinitely, hit even harder than it had the first time. I was tired of being terrorized by a clump of cells.

Removal of the tumor

A new doctor suggested needle biopsy again but I was emotionally drained from the whole process. I just wanted to get the whole damn tumor out of there and put this mess behind me. So we opted for a complete excision of the lump. The surgeon was hesitant because few doctors have operated on lactating breasts. However, he supported my decision to continue nursing and after a few months, the tumor was removed. 

Then, I ended up getting mastitis again! I have also had to deal with complications from the ducts that were cut (an inevitable outcome). Sometimes when my milk lets down, it will balloon in that pocket where the tumor was before. I suspect it will resolve itself when my son eventually weans. I sometimes have concerns about how this will affect my nursing relationship with future babies, but I am sure I will take it in stride. One day at a time, just like I do now. 

Unsupportive relatives

This would have been an easier journey with some comprehensive support. In everything else in the world, my mom is totally supportive. However, seeing my many ups and downs in trying to breastfeed, she has pushed me to quit many times. Obviously, I am HER baby so when she believed that breastfeeding was "jeopardizing my health", she was really adamant that I should give up. Other family members haven’t been super supportive either. In the beginning, my sister in law flat out told me that breastfeeding was gross and we haven't spoken about it since. I'm far too hormonal and I might just open up a can of whoop a$$!

When to wean

I tell you all this, because I'm now in a pretty comfortable place with breastfeeding. Knock on wood, we haven't had any issues of late. So now, eight months later when me and the kid finally have our shit together, people are telling me its curtain call. "You only really need to breastfeed for 6 months." "When are you planning on going until?" "You're STILL breastfeeding?" 

So you mean to tell me I went an extra two months, and I didn't have to?! Damnit! Who do I talk to about a refund? 

Weaning is a topic that seems to be coming up more and more these days. Apparently, everyone and their dog thinks they have a right to comment on my boobs. Seriously...there are some very judgemental poodles out there. (Insert laugh here.)

Of course I know that according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, 6 months is the minimum recommendation and 12 months is what society interprets as the "maximum." How about this...I do what I want. Yes, I'm still breastfeeding. No, I don't have an end date in sight. How about I do what works for my family, and you mind your own god damn business. :) Since when the hell did my boobs become open to your interpretation and advice anyway? 

I get it. I used to be one of those people who thought it was gross and cringed at the sight of a kid old enough to walk over and plop a boob right in his own mouth.  But doing time in the breastfeeding trenches has changed me a bit. I don't know if that is what will happen in this house, but it doesn't bother me as much anymore. Even if your kid is old enough to tip his hat before sauntering over and saying, "I'm a might bit thirsty mummy, could I have a bit of milk", I think it's fine. It doesn't make you a freaking deviant.

My son will be 11 months old this week, which means continued breastfeeding solidifies my status as a freak of nature in American society. I'm sure I catch more flack than the average bear, because of my giganto baby who looks like a pre-schooler. Regardless, I think this negativity and judgement is horse crap. There is no magic date circled on my calendar. We will wean, when our family sees fit. 

Mothers who don’t try

I think that Moms who don't even try to breastfeed because of superficial concerns like saggy breasts, stretch marks, the inconvenience, etc are selfish cows. I'm ok with "owning" that. There is no "I" in motherhood. It is all about sacrifice. Besides, breastfeeding is the reason we have boobs in the first place!

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Next Generation Stay At Home Mom said...

Go Amanda! I am breastfeeding my 7 month old and people bug me about weaning also. Breastfeeding in the US is not for the faint of heart.

20somethingmom said...

Tell me about it! Keep up the good work :)

Patty said...

So much credit to you and glad it is still going well. I am still nursing my 13 month old- it is amazing to me how many people ask about my weaning- and I want to say exactly what you have said- 'WHY DO YOU CARE?" I have gone thru more clogged ducts than I can count, and mastitis- and cannot imagine throwing in the scare of a lump, biopsies, and cancer. I didn't nurse my first very long, and it always made me feel guilty. With my second I was a bit more determined, and with all the hard work put in now I just enjoy it- and so does she :)

Nat said...

I breastfed exclusively for 12 months (would've loved to go longer but both baby and my body was done). It was not easy, and a huge sacrifice, but I plan on doing it again for my next baby. BUT!! I would NEVER go so far as to say that those who choose not to breastfeed are "selfish cows"!!! How terrible! So many people judge breastfeeding moms, but we shouldn't retaliate by judging those who choose not to breastfeed. Yes, breast is best, but plenty of babies have thrived on formula and grown up to be productive, healthy adults. Every mom has to make their own decision about what works best for their family.

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