17 Aug

Breastfeeding through cancer treatment: with help from the Drugs in Breastmilk Information Service

Breastfeeding peer supporter Hannah was diagnosed with bowel cancer in 2020, and was repeatedly told during treatment that she would have to stop or avoid breastfeeding. Thanks to the BfN’s Drugs in Breastmilk factsheets (as well as her own determination and self-advocacy), she was in fact able to continue safely feeding both of her children throughout. Here’s her story.

I’m Hannah. I trained as a breastfeeding peer supporter with Home Start in Sheffield in 2017 (though this centre has sadly now closed). I breastfeed both of my children (aged 4 and 1). I had come to hear about the Breastfeeding Network early on in my parenting journey – I was on various breastfeeding support forums on Facebook, and BfN’s drugs factsheets were shared a lot whenever someone had a question about breastfeeding and medicines.

In late 2020, I was diagnosed with bowel cancer after waiting 5 months on a waiting list due to the pandemic. I always thought I had bowel cancer but doctors had convinced me it was IBD. I walked into the room for my colonoscopy and said “I think it’s cancer.” The doctor replied, “That’s very unlikely at your age.” But sure enough, within a few minutes of starting the procedure, the atmosphere in the room changed. I was in agony, I knew something was wrong. I was wheeled into recovery and left on my own. I glanced at the report lying out on the table next to me, where under the findings heading, it said Colorectal cancer, 40mm. My heart sank. It’s a horrible feeling to be right all along. It was devastating as my youngest child was only 7 months old, and I feared I would have to wean her.

After that, things moved quickly. Scans confirmed the good news that it was operable and contained in the bowel, and I met with the surgeon the following week. I had to make a difficult decision to remove 80% of my colon to prevent future cancers. I used the BfN fact sheets to check that it was safe to feed after my CT scan, since staff in the CT unit had no idea what was ok for breastfeeding. At my surgeon’s appointment he mentioned I’d have to stop breastfeeding for 24 hours after surgery – thanks to the detailed factsheet on anaesthesia, I knew it was safe to feed after general anaesthetic. So I proudly stood up and told him he was wrong.

When my letter came through for admission, the anaesthetist had also written a note to say I should stop breastfeeding after surgery. I was a bit disappointed that yet another member of staff had asserted incorrect information. I printed off all the factsheets on anaesthesia and pain relief and brought them with me, so I was fully armed to defend myself when I was admitted for surgery a few weeks later. I was very lucky that I didn’t need them, as a different anaesthetist greeted me that morning, and told me it was perfectly safe to breastfeed after surgery. He discussed options for pain relief and had designed postoperative pain relief that lessened the need for morphine in my blood stream. Despite covid restrictions and worsening case numbers, the hospital kindly allowed my then 8 month old baby and husband to stay in the hospital with me. I pumped a sippy cup of milk before I went to theatre and returned 7 hours later free of cancer. Baby survived on snacks but hopped straight back on the boob as soon as I returned. I was discharged 4 days later but I was back in hospital 6 days later.

This is where the factsheets really came to my rescue. I ended up in back in hospital with extreme stomach pain and high fever. The new join in my bowel had leaked gas into my abdomen and it had caused a huge infection. I needed antibiotics. When the doctor arrived with the antibiotics, I asked if they were safe for breastfeeding, and thankfully he answered honestly “I don’t know”. I said “let’s check then”, pulled out my phone and went to the factsheet on antibiotics. We scrolled the sheet together and identified both drugs and verified within seconds they were both safe. Thus I was able to start treatment quickly.

I was discharged after a week without need for further surgery and whilst in hospital received the good news that I was stage 2 bowel cancer and chemo would not be beneficial. Unfortunately I was separated from my baby for a lot of that time, due to a covid case on the ward, where I wasn’t allowed visitors for the last 3 days. Baby survived on artificial milk and food as well as expressed milk when I was well enough to pump. She never took a bottle, but drank from sippy cups and open cups, only taking around 30ml at a time. My supply was very low when I got home, but with the help of my milk loving 4 year old and the baby, my supply returned to normal after a week or so. 

Things I learnt about breastfeeding and medical issues:

  • If a healthcare professional tells you that you can’t breastfeed due to a medicine or medical procedure, don’t just take it at face value.
  • Do your own research, and check facts from reputable sources such as the Breastfeeding Network.
  • Ask for details of exactly what medicines or substances are being used on your body, you have a right to know and to verify their safety for breastfeeding.
  • If something isn’t safe, ask what other options there are. There are always options in medicine, even if one is clearly the best one. You have a right to choose what happens to your body.
  • Doctors and healthcare professionals are experts in their field but they are not often trained in breastfeeding. Do listen to their advice on your treatment, they only want the best outcomes for you, and sometimes stopping breastfeeding for treatment is the right choice.

I am eternally grateful to the Breastfeeding Network and their factsheets. They have saved me from much worry and uncertainty around all of my treatment and surgery, enabling and empowering me to keep doing the thing that gives me the most joy in my life (breastfeeding) during an extremely traumatic time.


You can find the Drugs in Breastmilk Information Service factsheets here:
https://www.breastfeedingnetwork.org.uk/drugs-factsheets/

If the medication or treatment you need isn’t listed, or you have questions, please contact the service directly. Email druginformation@breastfeedingnetwork.org.uk, or send a private message to the Drugs in Breastmilk Facebook page, and one of our team of volunteers will be in touch.


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