Until my third child turned one, I was one of the “lucky” ones when it comes to breastfeeding. I breastfed my older daughters until they were almost two and my baby until she was one. They latched and fed easily, my supply was strong but not too much, and for the most part, my journey was a seamless delight of enjoying the beauty of providing my babies the sustenance they needed.
Sure, there were difficult moments in my journey. I experienced the dreaded sore, bleeding nipples in the newborn days when everything is new and confusing. I vividly remember one evening when my newborn would not latch but was screaming with her mouth open wide. That overwhelming feeling of not knowing what to do and feeling completely helpless. I remember those moments of resentment towards my husband and his “useless nipples” when I wanted a bit more freedom and felt trapped under the burden of being the one to breastfeed. I’m also not one of those mystical people for whom baby weight “falls off” while breastfeeding, I worked my butt off for that! But overall, I feel tremendously thankful that breastfeeding allowed me to experience some of the most precious moments of my life with each of my three daughters.
I planned to nurse my third baby until she turned two as well, but two months before she turned one, I was diagnosed with breast cancer and my world was turned upside down.
I recognize that breastfeeding for nearly a year is a huge accomplishment and I’m beyond thankful for the time I got with my girl. But, for me, one year was just half the time I’d spent breastfeeding my other daughters.
I remember breaking down in tears at one of my first oncology appointments when the nurse told me that because of chemotherapy I would no longer be able to breastfeed or co-sleep, which we were doing at the time. Not only would the chemo transfer to my breastmilk, but it was also likely to come out in my sweat as well (chemo causes night sweats) making it unsafe for my baby to sleep with me. As you can imagine, I was completely devastated. So now, on top of countless Doctors appointments, tests, and insurance calls, plus all the fear and anxiety associated with a breast cancer diagnosis, I had to wean and sleep train my 10-month-old. This was a time of deep sorrow for me, but it also came with pockets of thankfulness and joy.
The joy came from feeling intensely loved and supported by the people in my life. One of the tests I had to have in the beginning was a full body CT scan and I found out the day before that I wouldn’t be able to breastfeed for 72 hours after. This was alarming to me because I hadn’t yet started the weaning process and my baby was nursing four times a day and at night.
I texted a couple of friends asking if they knew anyone with extra breastmilk and within the day, one of them had gathered eighteen bags of breastmilk from several other friends and filled my freezer. Not only that but as I started chemo other friends and even friends of friends continued to donate their milk. I was able to bottle-feed my baby girl with breastmilk until a little after she turned one. I know this wasn’t technically necessary for her, but for me, it provided a tremendous amount of emotional reprieve.
When I felt at my lowest, I drew strength and nourishment from other women as I fed my baby their milk.
At the end of the day though, breastfeeding saved my life. I discovered the tumor in my left breast because I was breastfeeding and came down with mastitis. I was keenly aware of every lump and bump in my boobs, so when the mastitis cleared up, I noticed one lump not going away. This lead me to make an appointment with my midwife and everything moved quickly forward from there.
I am so thankful to say that over a year later, I am cancer free! My now two-year-old has started co-sleeping with us again (whoops) and I am on the journey of recovery both physically and emotionally from a grueling year. It is unlikely that I will breastfeed a baby again and that is something that I grieve regularly. But it makes the privilege of getting to tenderly care for and provide nourishment to three little babies even more precious.