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What can breastmilk tell us about breast cancer risk? (Part 2)

Written by Tanya Lieberman, IBCLC

Yesterday, we looked at the work Dr. Kathleen Arcaro has been doing using breast milk samples to help determine breast cancer risk.  Today, we see how we, as lactation consultants, can be involved in helping our clients and any other breastfeeding mothers we encounter, especially those who are African American, be a part of this exciting research.

Photo via Indiana Black Breastfeeding Coalition

One thing was bothering Dr. Arcaro about the hundreds of breastmilk samples she had collected and analyzed – they were overwhelmingly from Caucasian women. She knew that African American women have a different pattern of breast cancer than white women. The rates of breast cancer in premenopausal black women are higher than in white women, and breast cancer in young women is generally more aggressive, leading to a higher mortality. Her goal is to develop an accurate model for breast cancer risk for all women, not just certain populations who traditionally participate in cancer research. To ensure her findings applicable to all women, she began working to recruit African American women to donate breastmilk samples.

While several funders told her that it would be impossible to collect large numbers of breastmilk samples from African American women, Dr. Arcaro found an enthusiastic partner in the Avon Foundation for Women, which is providing funding for the collection and analysis of milk samples from 200 African American women around the country. A few months into this project, she and her study team are well on their way to collecting these samples. African American women have expressed great enthusiasm for this project – the lab received expressions of interest from over 60 women in just the first 48 hours after recruitment began!

Another key part of this project is to recruit African American women (who don’t need to be lactating or any particular age) to sign up for the Love/Avon Army of Women – a project aiming to recruit one million women to sign up to participate in breast cancer research. Dr. Arcaro’s biopsy study benefited tremendously from participation in the Army of Women, making recruitment of women to donate milk fast, inexpensive and efficient. But having African American women well represented in the Army of Women is key, for her research and many others’. So Dr. Arcaro hopes you’ll help increase the number of African American women registered (and be sure to select “breast milk study” in the drop down menu to help us track our impact).

Dr. Arcaro’s lab is one of the few in the world which is consistently investigating the secrets breastmilk holds for our understanding of breast cancer. You can learn more about Dr. Arcaro’s work, and see if you or mothers you know might qualify for one of her studies, at the website of the UMass Breastmilk Lab, and follow the lab on Facebook.

Tanya Lieberman, IBCLC is a lactation consultant who has worked in pediatric and hospital outpatient settings. She writes the Motherwear Breastfeeding Blog, for the Best for Babes Foundation, for Motherlove Herbal Company blog, among other websites. She is co-author of Spanish for Breastfeeding Support (Hale Publishing, 2009). She has been a member of several Dr. Kathleen Arcaro’s study teams, working to recruit mothers to donate milk samples. Before becoming a lactation consultant she was senior education policy staff in the California legislature. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband and two children.

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7 Responses to What can breastmilk tell us about breast cancer risk? (Part 2)

  1. Jessica 15 June 2012 at 14:42 #

    I feel some of what could be a cause for breast cancer is the soaps and shampoos. There are lots of chemicals in these cleansers that could be absorbed by the nipple. In my opinion.

  2. Danica Riner 15 June 2012 at 14:50 #

    Avon is helping lead the research.. Avon should be ashamed of themselves. Their products are so highly toxic that it’s ironic that they fund anything to benefit women. I have yet to find a natural avon product I would want to use.

    • Sherry 15 June 2012 at 15:35 #

      I wholeheartedly agree with you, Danica. And if you look at the lists of supporters of most of the organizations that are supposed to be benefitting womens health, you’ll find some of the worst offenders TO womens health. Maybe it’s guilt that compels them to be supporters, or maybe it’s thier way of covering up what they really do, but either way, it’s just wrong.

  3. Marty 16 June 2012 at 15:50 #

    We have to look @ our environment as well. So many pollutants out there that we breath and are exposed to every day. I would surely think this has contributed to the increase in all cancers.


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