Cancer and Pregnancy: 5 Things You Need to Know

Baby showers, gift registries, nursery decorations, baby names and routine doctor’s visits are all the things a woman expecting a child would probably like to focus on. It’s a time for future planning and excitement. Cancer is the last thing a family wants to think about during pregnancy. Cancer diagnosis during pregnancy is real for 1 in every 1,000 women expecting a baby.

Pregnant ScreeningCancer diagnosis during pregnancy is very rare, but does happen. Here are 5 things you to know about cancer and pregnancy.

What is cancer?
The American Cancer Society defines cancer as the general name for a group of more than 100 diseases. There are many different kinds of cancers. What they have in common is that they start because abnormal cells grow out of control. Early detection is the key. Untreated cancer can cause serious illness and even death.

What’s the most common cancer diagnosed during pregnancy?
Of all the cancers, breast cancer is diagnosed most while women are pregnant. Breast cancer occurs in 1 in 3,000 pregnancies. According to the American Cancer Society, these cancers are also known to show up during pregnancy:

  • Cervical cancer
  • Breast cancer
  • Thyroid cancer
  • Hodgkin lymphoma
  • Non-Hodgkin lymphoma
  • Melanoma
  • Gestational trophoblastic tumor

What are some tests that can be done to find cancer during pregnancy?
Tests low in radiation, like X-Rays and Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), are generally considered safe during pregnancy. Women thinking about cancer screening should talk to their doctor to figure out the best cancer screening for their situation.

What happens if cancer is found during pregnancy?
Doctors and patients have a lot to consider when deciding next steps after cancer diagnosis. Important questions like where is the cancer located, how far along is the pregnancy and what is the stage of cancer, all need to be explored. It’s likely that a team of oncologists and other doctors will work together to find the best methods for keeping the mother and fetus safe.

A medical oncologist, surgical oncologist, radiation oncologist, and pediatric oncologist are doctors who specialize in cancer treatment.

If cancer is discovered during pregnancy or any other time of life, it’s good to have a support system of reliable people. Being surrounded with positive people that can attend doctor’s appointments or act as a listening ear can help tremendously when battling cancer.

Common cancer treatments available during pregnancy

  • Surgery is an option when a tumor needs to be removed from healthy tissue. There is anesthesia used during surgery that could present some risks for the developing fetus. The anesthesiologist, surgeon and high-risk obstetrician will work together to decide the safest drugs for both the mother and fetus.
  • Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to wipe out cancer cells. The drugs usually stop the cancer cells' from growing and dividing. There is a chance of harm to the developing fetus if chemotherapy is given in the first three months of pregnancy when vital organs are still developing. The risk of harm to the mother and fetus depend on the drug and the stage of pregnancy. 
  • Radiation therapy is the use of high-energy x-rays to destroy cancer cells. The risks to the developing fetus depend on the dose of radiation and the area of the body being treated.

motherCancer is a serious illness that will requires teamwork from the patient and doctors. The treatments and tests we’ve included are just a small bit of information needed to understand cancer and pregnancy. If you or someone you know has concerns, talking to a doctor is the best course of action to learn more.

Resources: American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO); American Cancer Society (ACS)

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