Although it’s rare, you can be diagnosed with cancer while you’re pregnant. It’s also possible to get pregnant while you’re being treated for cancer.
Pregnancy doesn’t cause cancer, and in most cases, being pregnant won’t make cancer grow faster in your body. Sometimes, hormone changes can stimulate specific cancers, like melanoma, but this is uncommon.
Cancer usually won’t affect your unborn baby, but certain therapies might pose risks. Work closely with your doctor to determine the best treatment options for your health and the health of your baby.
Read on to learn more about how doctors diagnose and treat cancer during pregnancy.
In general, cancer during pregnancy is an uncommon occurrence. Statistics show that about 1 in every 1,000 pregnant women are diagnosed with some form of cancer. However, experts expect the number of pregnant women with cancer to increase because more women are waiting until they’re older to have children. Risk of developing most cancers increases as you age.
Breast cancer is one of the most common type of cancer that affects women during pregnancy. About 1 in every 3,000 pregnant women will get this diagnosis.
Some common cancers that are diagnosed during pregnancy include:
- breast cancer
- cervical cancer
- Hodgkin and non-Hodgkin lymphoma
- ovarian cancer
- thyroid cancer
- colorectal cancer
Sometimes, certain symptoms of cancer may overlap with pregnancy symptoms, which can delay a diagnosis. Common signs of both pregnancy and certain cancers include:
- breast changes
- rectal bleeding
If your doctor suspects cancer during pregnancy, you may need certain tests to get a diagnosis. These might include:
An X-ray uses low doses of radiation to create images of the inside of your body. Experts have found the level of radiation used in an X-ray isn’t high enough to harm an unborn baby. Pregnant women should wear a lead shield to cover their belly during an X-ray when possible.
Computed tomography (CT) scan
A CT scan takes detailed pictures of your organs with an X-ray machine that’s hooked up to a computer. CT scans of the head or chest are typically safe to have during pregnancy. A CT scan of the abdomen or pelvis should only be done during pregnancy if it’s absolutely necessary. You should also wear a lead shield during a CT scan.
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
An MRI uses magnets and a computer to see inside your body. It’s generally considered a safe test for pregnant women because it doesn’t use ionizing radiation.
An ultrasound uses sound waves to create images of certain areas in your body. It’s considered a safe diagnostic test during pregnancy.
With a biopsy, doctors remove a sample of tissue to test for cancer in the lab. Biopsies are thought to be safe procedures for pregnant women.
Additional diagnostic tests and exams
Your doctor might want to perform a physical exam and lab tests to provide more information about your condition.
Sometimes, routine tests that are done during pregnancy can actually discover a cancer earlier than it would have been found otherwise. For instance, a Pap test can spot cervical cancer, and an ultrasound can uncover ovarian cancer in its early stages.
In many cases, cancer will not result in the need to terminate your pregnancy. However, in some cases, you might have to deliver your baby earlier than planned.
You and your healthcare team will need to discuss all the risks and benefits of managing your cancer and pregnancy. In addition to your OBGYN specialist, you’ll also need to see an oncologist. An oncologist is a doctor who treats cancer. You’ll likely have many more doctor appointments than a pregnant woman without cancer.
Experts don’t know all the ways that cancer can affect an unborn baby. Though it’s possible for some cancers to spread from the mother to the placenta, most cancers rarely have a direct effect on the fetus.
There have been very rare cases of cancers such as melanoma or leukemia spreading from the placenta to the fetus. If this happens, your doctor will discuss how to treat the baby during pregnancy and once you deliver.
After you deliver your baby, your doctor will check for early signs of cancer. If your baby is healthy, they won’t need any additional treatments.
Some cancer treatments can harm an unborn baby. The risk for damage is more likely during the first three months of pregnancy, which is known as the first trimester. During the first trimester, a baby’s organs and body structure are developing.
If you choose to breastfeed your baby while you have cancer, cancer cells won’t pass from you to your baby. Many women with cancer, or who have recovered from cancer, are able to successfully breastfeed their babies.
Chemotherapy and other cancer treatments can transfer through breastmilk to your baby. Because of this, if you’re receiving cancer treatment, you’ll likely be advised not to breastfeed. Talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits involved.
Years ago, doctors weren’t sure how to safely treat cancer during pregnancy, and many recommended terminating the fetus. Today, more women are choosing to treat their disease while they’re pregnant.
You’ll need to discuss all the pros and cons of receiving cancer treatment during your pregnancy with your doctor. Every situation is different.
Treatment choices for pregnant women with cancer are the same as treatment choices for nonpregnant women with cancer. How and when treatments are given might be different for pregnant women.
Your treatment options will depend on many factors, including:
- the type of cancer you have
- where your cancer is located
- the stage of your cancer
- how far along you are in your pregnancy
- your personal choices
Common treatments might include:
Surgery is usually considered a safe treatment option for mom and baby, particularly after the first trimester of pregnancy. The type of surgery will depend on the type of cancer. The goal of surgery is to remove cancerous tumors.
If you have breast cancer while pregnant, surgery may affect your ability to breastfeed if you have a mastectomy or radiation. Be sure to talk to your doctor about how surgery will affect breastfeeding if this is something you’re considering.
Chemotherapy and other medicines
Chemotherapy involves using toxic substances to kill the cancer in your body. Chemo and other anticancer drugs can harm the fetus, cause birth defects, or lead to miscarriage, especially if they’re used during the first trimester of pregnancy. Some chemotherapies and other cancer-fighting drugs can safely be given during the second and third trimesters.
Radiation uses high-energy X-rays or particles to destroy cancer cells in your body. This therapy can harm an unborn baby, particularly if it’s used during the first trimester. Sometimes, radiation can safely be used in the second or third trimesters of pregnancy, but this depends on the type, dose, and area being treated.
Should you delay treatment?
You might choose to wait to start your treatment until the last trimester or even after your baby is born. This is especially common if the cancer is diagnosed later in pregnancy or if it’s a very early stage cancer. Your doctor might be able to induce your labor early if necessary.
In general, pregnancy shouldn’t affect how well a cancer treatment works, but delaying treatment because of pregnancy might affect your outlook.
While cancer during pregnancy is rare, it can and does happen to some women. Often, a pregnant woman with cancer has the same outlook as a woman with cancer who isn’t pregnant.
Typically, being pregnant while having cancer shouldn’t affect your overall prognosis. If a cancer isn’t found early because of pregnancy, or you choose to delay treatment, this may affect your prognosis.
Talk to your doctor about the best way to treat your cancer during pregnancy. Many women go on to recover from cancer and have healthy babies.