Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Breast: A Natural and Unnatural History

Florence William's book, Breast: A Natural and Unnatural History, came to my attention after I completed some continuing education on women's cancer. This book has a lot of gems, and reading incrementally helps me to process them all.

Lactation is just part of this book, Williams isn't pushing it on us, but looking at the science in a fairly unbiased way. There have been a few damming accusations thrown at human lactation and it's important to look at all of the surrounding circumstances. For instance, why does lactation act to decrease breast cancer in some women, but then you hear about women who are pregnant, or nursing a baby discovering they have breast cancer? I've personally known two women diagnose with breast cancer within two years of childbirth, who breastfed exclusively. That has baffled and frightened me. Williams interviews a scientist who speculates that it's not so much nursing your babies, but the age of the mother during her first pregnancy that is important, and my friends were older when they started having children. The  younger you are when you give birth, the less likely you'll develop breast cancer, supposedly.  The theory is that a first pregnancy later in life, when the breast might have more pre-cancer cells, might actually trigger an outburst of cancer when the breast tissues rapidly expand for lactation. So in these situations, the older first time mom, may have an increase risk of breast cancer than the woman who never has children at all. This makes me grateful that I had my first child in my early twenties. I hope it was soon enough. Still, this is not great news and needs to be researched further.

 My attachment towards lactation is solid, and I wish more moms and babies would benefit from it. Still, it is important to find alternative ways to feed the babies who can't be breastfed. Having been bottle and formula fed myself, I morn the loss of all the protections I might have had, and wonder what damage might have been done, and what am I lacking in my milk that won't be passed on to my children, as the effects are thought to be multi-generational. When my grandmother's generation abandoned nursing their babies they probably had no idea what they were giving up. I think the loss is affecting us even today, as it seems that children are even less healthy then they used to be.

Another section of the book deals with environmental contaminants and toxins in breast milk. This is tragic, however, I wouldn't toss in the towel on human breast milk, simply because if our bodies are polluted, surely the cow's milk is too. So I doubt formula is going to be "cleaner" than we are since it's derived from animals walking and eating from the same planet as us.

Clearly, this post isn't complete since I haven't finished reading this book yet. However, I'm learning so much from it that it seemed appropriate to go ahead and recommend this book to anyone who has ever wondered at all about anything breast related. The thing I like the most so far is that Williams has done her research and come into contact with so many scientist who are currently studying many different aspects of the breast, breast milk, and our immune system. I hadn't expected it, but this book is tying into the theme that emphasizes the importance of good gut flora to our health.

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