Estimated reading time: 4 minutes
Rachelle Daley, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada
Breastfeeding through my baby’s cancer
We were ready to stop breastfeeding because I was tired of the nightfeeds and my husband was tired of the tantrums that our daughter would throw when I wasn’t around to feed her. She was 14 months old and my husband and I were slowly weaning her. It wasn’t so much a decision as a natural progression. I was a graduate student and school was busy at the end of the term. My husband was a stay-at-home dad and gave our girl water instead of my milk, which she began to accept without fussing.
But all this would change when we received unimaginable news. At Christmas my mom noticed a few drops of blood in our daughter’s diaper. The next day we were admitted to the acute pediatric ward of the hospital and she was diagnosed with a rare form of kidney cancer.
My milk had nearly gone. We had all been so busy over the holidays that breastfeeding had mostly stopped. My daughter was down to breastfeeding a little at night before going to bed, but I’m not even sure she was getting any milk. There was extra room in my bra cups and I had been thinking about buying new ones. But my girl needed me and my milk now more than ever.
My baby was poked, prodded, scanned, cathetered, and put under general anesthetic several times. With each new procedure and every passing day, she reached for my breast more often and my milk supply responded. It didn’t take long for my breasts to bulge and engorge, much as they had when my daughter was first born. I was thankful that she had chosen to come back to my breast. We were devastated by the overwhelming helplessness that we felt as preparations progressed for surgery and subsequent treatments. But this gift that my daughter gave me, the gift of needing me and my milk, allowed me to feel there was something I could give her, even as I handed her over for surgery.
On January 7th, my daughter had her kidney removed and her lung biopsied. She was not permitted to eat or drink anything for three days after surgery because such a major operation can stop the intestines from working. My breasts did not understand that they could not nourish her and they became swollen, hot, and heavy. They would become even heavier when she pleaded to be fed, lying in her crib, with tubes inserted in both feet, her spine, her urethra, and her lung cavity. My husband would ask me to leave the room as it was unbearable for all of us having to deprive my girl of breastfeeding when she most needed comfort and loving touch.
To relieve the pressure I pumped my milk in the room provided by the hospital. And I cried. I prayed that my milk supply would not dwindle so that when my baby was permitted to eat again, she could feed to her heart’s content and never go without this loving gift again.
To relieve the pressure I pumped my milk in the room provided by the hospital. And I cried.
The evening of the third day, the surgeon heard gurgles in my baby’s guts and told us that it was fine to breastfeed. I had just finished pumping, but I immediately leaned over my daughter as she lay in her crib and she immediately latched on. She drank long and hard. When she finished with one breast, she asked for the other, and then back and forth again. She did not want to stop and I did not want her to. She continued to feed hungrily and greedily through recovery, even as a collapsed lung from the biopsy meant a much longer period of immobility. My milk never let us down: it kept up with her demand and filled her whenever she requested it.
My daughter is now about to receive her last chemo treatment. She has impressed the nurses and doctor alike with how well she has responded to treatment. She has recovered from surgery beautifully and has only suffered the mildest side effects from the chemo. Our pediatric oncologist won’t confirm the importance of my breast milk toward the treatment having gone so smoothly, but we know very well that breastfeeding has been key.
My daughter is 18 months old now and still cannot talk more than forming cute words and babbling. Yet she communicates very clearly when she is not feeling well from the chemo. Those are the days when she crawls into my lap more often and needs my milk, my touch, and my breast near her, often. Those are the days and nights that she would like to keep my breast in her mouth even long after she has finished feeding.
I still get tired of the night nursing and my husband still gets tired of the tantrums that our daughter throws when she wants to breastfeed and I am not around; but we have seen and understood first hand the significance of breastfeeding. We understand that when everything in the world was failing her, mommy’s milk is what she craved and needed. Now every sleepless moment that I spend next to her at night, every bored sigh I let out as I wait for her to finish nursing so that I can get back to what I was doing, every little tantrum she throws for daddy—they are all tiny blessings, reminding us of how lucky we are to have this wonderful girl around and how grateful we feel that nature has provided us with what we need to help us all get through this trying time.
I will not be needing new bras for some time yet.