Breastfeeding, or chestfeeding, may help reduce the risk of childhood leukemia. This may be due to the protective effects of certain substances, such as lactoferrin, in breast milk.

Human milk might have protective benefits against cancer, and breastfeeding could reduce the risk of childhood leukemia.

This may be due to the anti-inflammatory and immune-supporting properties of breast milk. The milk also contains antibodies that help support the gut microbiome.

This article looks at the scientific evidence behind the potential benefits of breast milk, whether or not breast milk can treat leukemia, and some common barriers to breastfeeding.

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Breastfeeding may reduce the risk of childhood leukemia. A 2015 review looked at 17 studies that took place in 1960–2014 and investigated the link between breastfeeding and childhood leukemia.

The review suggests that breastfeeding for 6 months or longer could reduce the risk of childhood leukemia by 20% compared with breastfeeding for less time or not at all.

The researchers suggest that one reason for this is that breast milk contains antibodies and acts as a prebiotic, which helps create a healthy gut microbiome. Breast milk also has anti-inflammatory properties and could support the immune system.

Breast milk also contains a protein called lactoferrin, which is a protein that helps kill microbes and reduce inflammation. Oligosaccharides are a type of carbohydrate in breast milk that can prevent infections.

Some of the studies in the review did not differentiate between partial and exclusive breastfeeding, wherein an infant receives only breast milk. Partial breastfeeding could include other substances in baby formulas that affect the results.

A 2021 review of 45 studies found a link between breastfeeding and a reduced risk of childhood leukemia. The authors found that the link was strongest when breastfeeding continued for an average of 9—10 months.

It also found a possible link between breastfeeding and a reduced risk of neuroblastoma, which is a cancer of the adrenal glands.

A 2018 review suggests that breastfeeding may reduce the risk of childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), which is a type of blood cancer. The research suggests that this may be due to microorganisms, antibodies, and anti-inflammatory substances in breast milk that support the microbiome and immune system.

Formula does not directly cause leukemia. However, one 2014 study suggests that milk formula can increase insulin-like growth factor 1, which may contribute to the formation of leukemia. The study found a link between a longer duration of formula feeding and starting solid foods at a later age and an increased risk of ALL.

The researchers note that further evidence is necessary to assess the potential impact of longer formula use and later introduction of solid foods.

A 2019 article concludes that feeding infants with little or no human milk could cause a slightly higher risk of childhood leukemia.

According to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, receiving radiation therapy to the breast area may affect one’s ability to produce milk.

A person will need to talk with their healthcare team about whether or not they are able to breastfeed during or after treatment, as some medications are not suitable to use while breastfeeding.

There is currently no scientific evidence to suggest that breast milk can help treat leukemia.

Some research states that there is some evidence suggesting that the properties of breast milk could help destroy cancer cells.

For example, test tube and animal studies suggest that alpha-lactalbumin proteins and oleic fatty acids in breast milk can destroy cancer cells. Alpha-lactalbumin could potentially reduce tumor size in people with various forms of cancer.

Ongoing research is investigating the effects of human milk on cancer and whether or not it has any benefits for treating tumors.

There are many factors that create barriers to breastfeeding, such as:

  • workplace policies
  • parental leave policies
  • access to lactation support
  • access to social and childcare support
  • facilities within hospitals
  • the stigma of breastfeeding in public places
  • racial inequalities affecting access to breastfeeding support
  • marketing impact of breast milk alternatives, such as formula
  • lactation issues, such as sore nipples, breast engorgement, or milk supply

Talking with a healthcare professional can be helpful for people experiencing lactation problems.

People may also find the following resources helpful:

The OWH also offers additional breastfeeding support and information here.

Research suggests that breastfeeding could reduce the risk of childhood leukemia. This may be due to the anti-inflammatory and immune-supporting properties of breast milk.

However, research is still in its early stages, and more robust evidence is necessary to confirm these findings.

There is currently no evidence to suggest that breast milk can treat or cure leukemia.

There are many barriers to breastfeeding, including a lack of access to resources, support, and breastfeeding facilities. A person can talk with a healthcare professional or find support online if they feel unable to provide breast milk to their infant.