On Breast Cancer and Breastfeeding

One mother battles cancer and her own perceptions that breast is best.

Three months after my baby was born, I found a painful lump in my armpit. I was just 39 and diagnosed with breast cancer that had spread to my lymph nodes. 

I had found a lump in my breast one year earlier, but the surgeon who performed a (botched and painful) biopsy determined it to be normal breast tissue. I thought I had put that nightmare behind me, but it turned out the doctor hadn’t biopsied the right area. During my pregnancy, the cancer he left behind had grown, spread and become dangerous.

I dreaded telling my three older children that, “Mama has cancer,” knowing their sense of security would be irrevocably messed up. It all felt cruel and crushing, and came on top of the intense anxiety cancer always delivers. My sister had died of breast cancer just a couple years earlier, leaving a devastated 10-year-old daughter. At the time, my son was a toddler and my daughters were in grade school–they had seen this journey before.

I had just three days to wean my new daughter before starting cancer treatment, and those were among the saddest and hardest days of my life. I grieved during the last snuggly feedings. I hated the formula and bottles that quickly replaced me.

Since the cancer had metastasized and was aggressive, my doctor told me not to get my hopes up for 5-year survival, but I replied, “F*** that.” I ducked my head and did my time — surgery, 12 rounds of chemotherapy and months of radiation. Then I did my best to focus on better days ahead. 

It helped that I had young children to take care of. It didn’t help that the state I lived in wouldn’t authorize disability payments for a mother of four with cancer. I worked part-time as a labor nurse during my treatment, which provided critical distraction from my fear that I wouldn’t live long enough for my baby to remember me. I felt like crap. I was an emotional mess. I was morbid and edgy and bald and sick. I was not Mother of the Year.

And I mourned my lost opportunity to breastfeed. But I learned a lot about good mothering by not being able to breastfeed. I breastfed my first three babies for a year or two each. I nursed my first while pregnant with my second. I nursed through mastitis, working the night shift, and even when giving a bottle would have helped my husband bond with his babies. I was absolutely in the “breast is always best” camp until three months after I had Baby #4.

Everybody knows that breast is best. Nothing you can buy in a can will ever be better than the stuff you make with your very own breasts. Breast milk is superior in nutrition, antibodies, affordability – everything. Except when it’s not. Then bottle-feeding  is better. It was for me.

That was 15 years ago, and today I’m healthy. The baby is in high school and my other children are adults.

Having cancer was horrid but it was also motivating. I didn’t “fight” cancer.  I didn’t “stay strong” and “brave.” These are statements other people need to make them feel less powerless. Cancer was powerful, but it wasn’t a war. It was an illness I lived with it until I healed and then, it was a motivator for change. It pushed me to live the healthiest life possible, to do the things I’d put off for “some day,” face my bad habits, and welcome new ones. I became a writer, switched careers, and started doing the work I’d dreamed of when I was younger. I became less strident, more accepting and began mentoring other mothers to feel OK being less than perfect.

And I learned that breast is not always best. Over the years I worked at the hospital, countless women confided in me that they felt like bad mothers because they didn’t want to breastfeed.  Some were rape survivors. Some had to return to work within a few weeks and didn’t want to or wouldn’t be able to pump. Some had breast reduction surgery that had disrupted their milk glands. There were other reasons too, but it all boiled down to physical, emotional, or financial matters that meant breast was not best for them. Most felt pretty bad about it, like they weren’t good mothers. …I learned not to judge. That lesson in acceptance became crystal clear after I became a bottle feeder.

I hate to give cancer too much credit, but it’s partly responsible for the dominant message in my book, Common Sense Pregnancy. None of us know what lies ahead. All we can do is our best to mother our babies in sickness and in health. But mamas, I do know this – even when things suck, it’s all going to be OK.

Written by Jeanne Faulkner. Parts of this essay were adapted from her new book, Common Sense Pregnancy (Penguin Random House/Ten Speed Press, June 2015).  

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