Breast Cancer and Breast-Feeding -- A Connection?

Did you know that the very cells produced when you're pregnant so you can breast feed can be hijacked by cancer cells to produce faster-growing, more aggressive tumors later?

 “This normal pathway ends up contributing to the progression of cancer,” says Jay Desgrosellier, PhD, assistant professor of pathology at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine and Moores Cancer Center, and first author of the study that discovered this.


During pregnancy, certain hormones trigger specialized mammary stem cells to create milk-producing cells essential to lactation, according to newswise.com. The study found that mammary stem cells associated with the pregnant mammary gland are related to stem cells found in breast cancer.

Scientists have long known there's a connection between breast cancer and pregnancy, primarily because both lead to fast-growing cells.  Cancer is a mutation in a fast-growing cell.

Researchers specifically identified a key molecular pathway associated with aggressive breast cancers that is also required for mammary stem cells to promote lactation development during pregnancy. 

 During pregnancy, a new mammary stem cell population grows, distinct from those involved in development and maintenance of the non-pregnant gland. These stem cells remodel the breasts and lactating glands in preparation for feeding the newborn child. Normally, these stem cells contribute only to early remodeling events and are switched off by the time milk production begins.

But in some cases these cells can also grow cancer.

While having a child reduces a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer later in life, there is also an increased short-term risk for the development of a highly aggressive form of breast cancer following each pregnancy, newswise.com reports.

"The current study suggests that molecules important for stem cell behavior during pregnancy may contribute to these more aggressive pregnancy-associated breast cancers, a possibility the researchers plan to investigate further," the Web site notes.   

This is not to suggest that anyone who becomes pregnant will develop breast cancer, though I did, three years after giving birth to my son.  I was fortunate.  My cancer was caught early.  But in a very small number of cases, this seems to be the case.  Get your mammograms, even if you're under 40.  One saved my life.


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