In case you live under a rock, October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Instead of pink-washing, we focus on ways to prevent breast cancer. We already knew that breastfeeding is one such way – but what about breast milk itself? The UMASS Breastmilk Lab is engaging in some exciting research involving breast milk, and they need YOUR help! This post was shared with us by Tanya Lieberman, IBCLC, research associate and former Best for Babes volunteer (she wrote the groundbreaking Booby Traps® Series!).
Could your breast milk be a secret weapon in the battle to end breast cancer?
This Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we’re pleased to share some ground breaking breast cancer research which uses breast milk to unlock the secrets of the disease. And if you meet the criteria for one of the studies using breast milk, you may be able to donate your own!*
In spite of years of breast cancer research, we know little about which women will develop it. The most widely known risk factors – family history and inherited gene mutations – account for only a small number of the new cases diagnosed each year.
Breast milk DNA
One of the promising avenues of breast cancer research is the study of patterns of DNA “methylation:” the presence of methyl groups which attach to key parts of our DNA, such as tumor suppressor genes, and “turn them off,” rendering us less capable of stopping the growth of tumors. Some forms of methylation can make us more vulnerable to breast cancer.
To study methylation you need breast cells, but they’re also hard to get without an invasive procedure such as a biopsy. And of course biopsies yield cells from only one spot on one breast.
But breastmilk is a remarkably rich source of these cells. As it turns out, when you make milk, millions of your breast duct cells naturally slough off into the milk. And the cells come from every area of each of your breasts. You produce an average of 30,000 per milliliter every time you nurse or pump!
Since 2009, Dr. Kathleen Arcaro at the University of Massachusetts has been collecting breastmilk to study methylation patterns in breast cells. Her research has found that certain patterns of methylation are correlated with a higher risk of breast cancer.
This finding is important because it may allow mothers to one day get a personalized breast cancer risk profile. Even more importantly, the hope is that new treatments may actually be able to reverse methylation, dramatically reducing our risk of breast cancer.
You may have known that your breast milk is amazing for its nutritional and immunological properties, but now you know how it’s a weapon in the war on cancer, too!
How you can help
- nursing mothers living anywhere in the country who have been referred for a biopsy while breastfeeding, OR
- mothers living anywhere in the country who have, or have had, breast cancer.