The most common form of cancer during pregnancy is breast cancer. About 1 in 33,000 pregnant women are affected by breast cancer. The incidence of other cancers that can occur during pregnancy is also higher in those who aren’t pregnant.
- Cervical Cancer
- Gestational and trophoblastic diseases
- Hodgkin lymphoma
- Non-Hodgkin lymphoma
- Thyroid cancer
How is cancer during pregnancy diagnosed?
Pregnant women may have a harder time detecting cancer. Other symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, and rectal bleeding are all common in pregnancy. These breast changes can appear normal as they are often associated with a larger breast and a change in texture. Pregnant women might notice cancer-related changes later, and may therefore be diagnosed earlier than those who are not.
Sometimes, pregnancy can reveal cancer. A Pap test can be done as part of routine pregnancy care to detect cervical cancer. An ultrasound can also be done during pregnancy to identify ovarian cancer.
Certain tests that doctors use to diagnose cancer are safe for pregnant women and their unborn children. Some could prove to be dangerous. Talk to your doctor about any recommended tests and inform the staff that you are pregnant. These are some of the most common tests for diagnosing cancer:
X-ray. The radiation from diagnostic xrays is too low for the fetus to be affected by, according to research. A shield is used to protect the abdomen from radiation during x-rays.
Computed Tomography (CT) or CAT scans. CT scans can be compared to x-rays, but they are more precise because they use more radiation. They can detect cancerous growths or indicate the presence of cancer. During pregnancy, CT scans of both the chest and head are generally safe. Because they don’t expose the fetus directly to radiation, this is why they are safe during pregnancy. A shield should be used when possible to cover pregnant women’s abdomen during CT scans. If there are no other options, CT scans of the abdomen and pelvis should be performed. Discuss the possibility of this scan with your doctor.
You may also need to have other tests. Usually, pregnancy is safe with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), ultrasound and a biopsy.
How can cancer be treated during pregnancy?
Preparing for cancer treatment in pregnancy requires the collaboration of a multidisciplinary team that includes different types of health care providers and medical professionals. These include oncologists who specialize in cancer and high-risk obstetricians. An obstetrician (sometimes called an OB) is a doctor who provides care for pregnant women.
Your obstetricians and cancer doctors will discuss and compare all possible treatment options and the risks. It will take into account several factors. It is important to consider the stage of your pregnancy as well as the type, size and stage of your cancer. As you make decisions about cancer treatment, your doctors will talk to you about your preferences. They will keep an eye on you throughout treatment to ensure that your baby is healthy.
Sometimes, doctors might recommend delaying or avoiding certain treatment during pregnancy. Take, for example:
- Some cancer treatments can cause more harm to a foetus during the first three months of pregnancy. Your doctor may recommend that you delay treatment until the second and third trimesters.
- Certain treatments can cause harm to the fetus during pregnancy. These treatments should be avoided by doctors until the baby is born. Radiation therapy, for example, is a powerful treatment that destroys cancer cells using high-energy xrays. There may be risks for the baby throughout pregnancy, depending on how much radiation is used and the area that needs to be treated.
- If a doctor discovers cancer in a pregnancy later, they might recommend that treatment be started after the baby is born.
- Some doctors may advise waiting to treat certain types of cancers, such as early-stage cervical carcinoma, until after the baby is born.
What are the best cancer treatments for pregnant women?
Some types of cancer treatments are more safe to use during pregnancy than other:
Surgery. Surgery involves the removal of the tumor and the surrounding healthy tissue. The risk to the foetus is generally minimal. It is generally the best treatment for all stages of pregnancy.
Treatments for cancer. The use of chemotherapy to kill cancer cells may be part of your treatment plan. Only certain times during pregnancy can chemotherapy be used.
- The risk of having a baby with birth defects or a miscarriage during the first three months of pregnancy is high. This is the time when the organs of the fetus are still growing.
- Doctors can offer a variety of chemotherapy that is low-risk to the fetus during the second and third trimesters. Some drugs can’t pass through the placenta because it acts as a barrier protecting the baby. Other drugs can only be passed through in very small quantities. Children who have been exposed to chemotherapy in pregnancy are less likely to experience health problems than those who don’t. This applies to both the time immediately after birth and throughout the child’s growth.
- Low blood counts and side effects from chemotherapy in later stages of pregnancy can be a result. This could increase the chance of infection and inadvertently harm the baby at birth or after birth.
- To protect your baby’s health from cancer treatment, your healthcare team may recommend inducing labor before you start chemotherapy. This decision will be discussed with you carefully and taken into consideration for both your health as well as the health of your baby.
- Breastfeeding is not recommended if you have received chemotherapy after your baby is born. Breast milk can be used to transfer chemotherapy to infants.
Does pregnancy affect cancer treatment?
The effectiveness of cancer treatment seems to be unaffected by pregnancy. The outcome of cancer treatment can be affected by finding it later or not getting treatment immediately. Discuss with your healthcare team how the different factors can affect your chances of getting cancer. Also, how to recover from it.
Questions for the Health Care Team
Ask your doctor these questions if you’ve recently been diagnosed with cancer and are currently pregnant.
- How many years of experience have you had in treating women who are pregnant with cancer?
- How can you help me with my obstetrician.
- Are there any tests that I must have to find out more about this cancer? Each test could pose a risk for my baby.
- What are my options for cancer treatment?
- What treatment plan do YOU think is the best? Why?
- Should I start treatment immediately or wait?
- Can a delay in my treatment impact how I recover after this cancer?
- Can I continue my pregnancy?
- What are the long-term and short-term risks of my treatment for me? To the baby
- How will my baby be monitored while I am undergoing cancer treatment?
- How will my cancer treatment affect how we give birth?
- Can I breastfeed my baby?
- Are there any counselors, social workers in oncology, or other staff members who can help me deal with the emotional side effects from my diagnosis?
- What support services or other resources are available for me? My family?
What To Do If You Get Diagnosed with Cancer During Pregnancy
Pregnancy and Cancer: “Your Stories” Podcast
Hope for Two – The Pregnant with Cancer Network
MedlinePlus – Tumors and Pregnancy
National Cancer Institute – Breast Cancer Treatment during Pregnancy