My breast cancer made me reevaluate breastfeeding

By Jenny Leon

When I found out I had breast cancer, a friend from the mom’s group I joined right after the birth of my first child texted me, “At least no one can judge you for not breastfeeding this one.” She and I had been the secret breastfeeding skeptics of the group. We craved a return to normal shirts, pre-baby bodies and no longer feeling like human cows. Although we loved our babies, we didn’t want to be shackled to them.

While the others were eating lactation cookies and rigorously measuring their meager outputs from their hourly pumping sessions, my friend and I both had plenty of milk and babies who latched pretty well, but we knew it best to keep our mouths shut. 

Before my first was born, I had never considered any option other than breastfeeding. I didn’t even purchase a single bottle or back-up can of formula. My husband and I attended breastfeeding classes at the hospital taught by an earth mother who padded around the classroom barefoot, expressing her twin loves for breastfeeding and co-sleeping. She gave us all soulful embraces at the end of class, as she wished us luck on our journeys.

My breastfeeding experience ended up being like the opening of Act 5 of Macbeth, where Lady Macbeth wanders around the castle in a stupor, compulsively washing her hands. I suffered from perinatal obsessive compulsive disorder, causing the pumping, sterilizing, sleep deprivation and confinement of breastfeeding to make me very anxious. The doctors put me on Zoloft and told me it was safe to continue breastfeeding. And so I soldiered on.

It wasn’t until I stopped breastfeeding at six months, when my pediatrician told me I had made it further with exclusive breastfeeding than most of her other patients, I then realized how many mothers were ashamed to admit they used formula to some extent. 

In spite of my conflicted emotions about breastfeeding, when I got pregnant with my second child, I didn’t second-guess my decision to try to do it again. And I resolved to enjoy it this time. 

That was until I got diagnosed with breast cancer at 33 weeks pregnant.

After my diagnosis, there was no question in anyone’s mind that my daughter was going to be bottle-fed. Either she would take a bottle or I would risk death. My concerns about breastfeeding were compassionately but swiftly dismissed by the medical profession. Before my double mastectomy, I might as well have renamed my breasts “anger” and “shame.” Anger at my diagnosis and shame at being unable to give my daughter what she needed.

While no one mentioned the benefits of breastfeeding to me again, I knew them: improved IQ, better immunity, more healthy weight gain, decreased risk of SIDS, gastrointestinal issues and childhood cancers, reduced risk of breast cancer for the mother (that was a hard pill to swallow) and my personal favorite, greater attachment. Each one felt like being sucker punched.

Previously, I laughed when I saw influencer moms posting photographs of themselves looking like the Madonna in lingerie while breastfeeding toddlers and saying things like “as long as you’re breastfeeding, you’re doing great, Momma.” But now I seethed with envy. The fetishization of “liquid gold” weighed as heavily on me during those early months as the absence of my breasts. 

Turning to the medical profession, I thought perhaps I could find some solace in the facts. The cancer and breastfeeding section on, a website sponsored by the American Academy of Pediatrics, states that:

Previous breast cancer does not mean that you cannot breastfeed your baby. If you have had a mastectomy, you can feed from the remaining breast. If you have had a tumor removed from your breast or radiation treatments, you can still try feeding from that breast.

It was as if the website was telling me, You don’t have breasts. Of course, you can’t breastfeed. You selfishly chose to cut off both breasts when you could have chosen to get a lumpectomy or a single mastectomy. The next page starts off by stating, “when needed, infant formulas can provide excellent nutrition for your baby (emphasis mine).” They might as well have handed me a medal for being a second-place mother.

As I sat on the floor of a yoga studio, trying to find a comfortable position for my post-mastectomy, postpartum body, the leader of the mom’s group opened the session by telling us that this was a safe space for breastfeeding. She passed around breastfeeding pillows followed by nutritious snacks, reminding us that we needed to remember to feed ourselves too, since we were sustaining human life. The other mothers bounced on large birthing balls, their naked breasts buoyant, as they tried to coerce fussy babies into feeding.

But I had left my baby at home. “She was taking a nap and I needed a break, I went for a walk and ran out of time,” I explained. It was a lie. I had left her with my husband on purpose to avoid the risk of having to explain to the other mothers why I wasn’t breastfeeding. I preferred they think I was semi-neglectful and scatterbrained, rather than the truth. That she was bottle-fed.

In the first year of her life, my daughter caught many viruses. People would repeatedly suggest to me that it was because she wasn’t breastfed. But there were conflating variables (my son started preschool the same year she was born and brought a ton of viruses into the house) and conflicting evidence (my daughter always seemed to be able to fight off the viruses like a champ).

When my daughter learned to walk later than my son, there was a brief moment when my insecurities about not breastfeeding once again overtook me. But then I remembered, she learned to say her name at a mere seven months old. 

Now when I look around I realize I wasn’t the only one being left out of the conversation on breastfeeding. Many people cannot breastfeed, including adoptive mothers and some trans mothers, non-gestational mothers (in same-sex relationships or who have used surrogates), mothers with lactation issues or pain, mothers on certain medications and, let’s not forget, fathers (whether in homosexual or heterosexual relationships).

“Breast is best” is driven by the cultural construct of a “good mother” as a cisgender woman, who is the biological mother of her child and has the time and health to devote 1,825 hours to breastfeeding per year. The rest of us are just trying to feed our children.

Jenny Leon practiced corporate finance for six years at several major midtown Manhattan law firms. She has finished treatment for breast cancer and is now hiding out from the pandemic in Montclair, New Jersey with her husband and two babies. She can be found on Instagram @jennyrosenyc.

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