Breastfeeding is quite easily the hardest (but most rewarding) thing I’ve ever had to do and although its been hindered in many ways by having cancer, it also provided me with qualities and characteristics to handle it that I otherwise wouldn’t have had before.
At 17 I was diagnosed with the Big C; a very rare type of Ewings Sarcoma that resulted in chemotherapy and radiotherapy. It was found growing off my rib and onto my lung and part of the treatment involved surgery on my chest to remove my right lung. Later my chest was reconstructed with muscles from my back and although I never had breast cancer, all the surgery and radiotherapy to my chest did mean that I was left with little to none breast tissue in my right breast. I had to be realistic from the start and realise that I would never be able to breastfeed from my right side, however when I became pregnant it was obvious I could breastfeed from my left side. As one very old school, strict midwife pointed out to me: “Many women feed from only one breast, so you have no excuse young lady!” (Yeah, she was mega supportive, loved her (!)).
I’ll share with you some personal tips for breastfeeding after cancer
So the first thing I would say is, have no expectations. Go into the idea of breastfeeding with the presumption that you might not be able to do it because of what you’ve been through. Try and come to terms with that and deal with it before your baby is born. The pressure to breastfeed on any mum is high but you’ve got to remember that you’re not like any other mum. You’re different. You’re robust and battle hardened. You’ve dealt with physical pain and mental hardship not many people have experienced. Life has chewed you up and spat you out and you’ve STILL come out the other side, better, stronger and equipped to deal with whatever is thrown at you next. So if you can’t breastfeed, that’s okay. Because you’ve got so much more to give your baby and the sooner you realise that the better; because motherhood is an emotionally draining experience as it is, filled with enough guilt about what you should/shouldn’t be doing without you adding some more to the mix.
The other half of this is assuming you have discovered you can breastfeed. Having breastfed two babies now, what I realised was how super unprepared I was with my first boy, George. Like any new mum, you spend your whole time preparing for the birth but actually forget about all the important bits afterwards; like how you’re going to keep this entirely helpless creature alive. So although I recommend to all new mummy’s to read up investigate and research everything you can about breastfeeding – how your breasts work, how they produce milk etc. – I especially recommend it to those that have had cancer. Because even though you know your body probably better than anyone else, this is an entirely different ball game. There’s no talk about cells and mutation, there are completely different side effects and your body is full of hormones.
Some people are very lucky and it just comes to them, others find it a bit more of a struggle. Either way I fully believe that if you’re prepared for everything – the cracked nipples, the cluster feeding, the colostrum, the hind milk and the leaks – then there are no surprises and you’re more likely to persevere and carry on. Because the first few weeks are the hardest and if any mum can get through them then they can do anything – and if anyone is prepared for this emotional, mental and physical challenge, then it’s a cancer survivor.
Lastly, I’d say the best thing you can do is get support. Read up on breastfeeding with your partner, mother, siblings and best friends, find a lactation consultant that you click with and see if there are any support groups in your area. These are the people that are going to be there for you, push you and guide you when you are struggling, feeling low or simply just need someone to talk to. My partner was so great particularly with my first boy because he listened and digested everything the midwife would say to me, all the helpful tips she’d give on her visits to check up on us. If I was struggling with a position, he’d help me into another. He’d remind me to eat and drink when I’d forget to look after myself and it was amazing. I also had my sister stay with me when my second baby Francis was born and she was my rock in those first weeks. She reminded me to pump to keep up my supply, giving me encouragement that I could do it despite my doubts. These are the people that you need around you and will appreciate tenfold.
But most importantly whatever happens in your journey with breastfeeding, be proud of your body. It has battled and fought for you, it has survived gruelling treatments and it has grown, nurtured and given you the most beautiful gift you will ever have. If you can breastfeed then that is fantastic! But equally don’t feel like a failure if it hasn’t worked out for whatever reason, because if you tried your hardest then that’s all you need to know. Be proud that you could do it despite everything, be proud that your body produced milk and provided food for your baby for however little or long it was. Just remember that whatever happens on this rocky, arduous and downright exhausting journey that is motherhood, your body is smart and strong… and so are you.
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