Pink, white, zebra striped
The Facebook statuses rolled this week as people responded to one of those silly memes. The first wave went. ‘Post your bra colour, don’t tell the boys!’
The second wave went, ‘Post your bra colour, don’t tell the boys, it’s for BREAST CANCER AWARENESS.’
Hmm. Now, putting aside feminist rhetoric, I thought the first version was some lighthearted, childish fun.
The second wave I found more sinister and I’m going to try and articulate why.
Almost all of us know someone who has been affected by breast cancer and we all want to do our bit to help. However, we are all very well aware of breast cancer. This meme isn’t going to fund research and it isn’t educating women. I find it astounding that people will exploit this wish to ‘do good’ to get their friends to join in with a game. What does it say about our need to belong and to make others belong that we will use emotive subjects like this?
Now, I heard one theory that suggests people have a lot of sympathy for breast cancer because it is so random, there is nothing you can do to protect yourself from it (apart from try to live a healthy lifestyle).
Now this is partly true. Fit, healthy women get breast cancer. Men get breast cancer.
But there IS one other thing you can do to protect yourself AND your daughter from breast cancer.
Breastfeeding has some great health benefits for all women, but this is particularly important for premenopausal women who have a close family member (mother, sister) who has had breast cancer. Did you know that a recent study found breastfeeding for these women cuts their risk of getting premenopausal breast cancer by a staggering 59%? (Stuebe at University of North Carolina, published in the Archivesof Internal Medicine, Aug. 2009)
Additionally, it cuts your risk of heart disease, osteoporosis, cervical and ovarian cancer and high blood pressure.
Even more staggeringly, if you breastfeed your daughter (even if only for a short term) you cut her risk of developing breast cancer by 25%. (“Exposure to breast milk in infancy and the risk of breast cancer” Freudenheim, J. 1994)
Additionally, if you breastfeed your baby for ONE month, you cut their risk of childhood leukemia by 21%. Keep on for six months, you cut that risk by 30%. (Robison, L. at University of Minnesota, 1999)
Breastfed babies also have lower lifetime risk of obesity, diabetes, asthma, SIDS, ear infection, respiratory infection, bacterial meningitis, rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s etc. etc. They also have fewer admissions to hospital.
Sadly, bottle v. breast is often seen as a lifestyle choice, and even more sadly, those who want to breastfeed are very frequently not given the support they need. Lactation counsellors are few and far between and hospitals don’t have the time or energy to help new mothers breastfeed. Formula manufacturers market in unethical ways and to new vulnerable mothers, implying their product is the same as breast milk (which as we can see, it isn’t.) And new mothers aren’t always protected in their choice to breastfeed. California has laws protecting breastfeeding mothers in public places, sadly not all of the US follows suit.
Most women WANT to breastfeed. Nine out of ten mothers gives up breastfeeding before they hoped to. Most just weren’t given the support they needed to combat simple problems like thrush, a poor latch or blocked ducts (all of which can seem like agony but can be overcome with support.) Many were fed myths or unnecessarily worried by health professionals tutting over such vague things as ‘poor weight gain’ or ‘milk not coming in’ (diagnosed far more frequently than actual occurrence.) Some have had their breastfeeding relationship interrupted by custody or immigration or incarceration or hospitalisation. Some have been sabotaged by nipple confusion caused by unnecessary pacifiers or bottles.
I don’t blame mothers for not breastfeeding. It is tough at first. It needs support, from our family, from society, from experienced breastfeeders, from the government, from the policymakers of society.
Most of us don’t have that support.
Breastfeeding is a matter of public health. It should be an absolute priority for public health officials, the government and health care professionals of all stripes.
So, it’s not just about ‘awareness’ – there is something we can actually DO about breast cancer and about the health of our babies in general. We can educate on the importance of breastfeeding. We can show people where to get the help they need to be successful breastfeeding (La Leche League or the National Childbirth Trust (in the UK) are both good starting points.)
We can and should urge policy-makers to understand how important this is. If you could reduce childhood leukemia by 25%, wouldn’t you?
I took a note from Empowered Birth and changed my facebook status from ‘zebra striped’ to this:
Breastfeeding reduces your chance of getting breast cancer (and the longer you breastfeed, the lower your risk). AND it also helps your daughter reduce HER chances of getting breast cancer. So post THIS instead of your bra colour today.
I feel much more comfortable with that.