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Getting Through a Healthy Pregnancy With Cancer
Cancer is never an easy hurdle to overcome, but it can become a monumental challenge during pregnancy. Whether you are diagnosed before you conceive or you are given the terrible news during the course of your pregnancy, treating cancer while you’re pregnant is complicated — but not impossible.
With a good health care team in your corner, a positive attitude, and smart self-care, you can treat your body while you protect your pregnancy. It’s important to be proactive in your cancer care, and that begins with learning as much as you can about your options and challenges that lay ahead.
Pregnancy and Cancer Risk
In general, your risk for developing cancer during pregnancy is low. About one in every 1,000 women will be diagnosed with cancer during their pregnancy, which amounts to a 0.1 percent risk.
Certain types of cancer are more prevalent among pregnant women, and not surprisingly, these are the cancers most common in younger people. Cancers of the thyroid, breast, cervix, skin (especially melanoma), and lymph system (both Hodgkin and non-Hodgkin lymphoma) are seen more often than other types.
Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer in pregnancy, but the risk is still low, with only one in 3,000 pregnant women developing the disease.
Unfortunately, despite the relatively low risk the chances for an early diagnosis are also low: breast swelling, tenderness, and changes in texture begin very shortly after conception, and these can make it much more difficult to detect a small lump. Add to that the fact that most women don’t have mammograms during pregnancy and the conditions are in place for cancer to grow.
Dealing With Cancer During Pregnancy
Receiving a cancer diagnosis after finding out you have a baby on the way can be devastating. You may be flooded with all sorts of worries, worst-case scenarios and uncertainties that can threaten your physical and emotional health. Your first steps forward will be to gather information, consider all options, and approach the challenge as calmly and tactfully as possible.
The Dangers in Diagnosis
Testing for any type of cancer can be quite involved, and often calls for an X-ray or CT scan to get a closer look at the problem. However, these methods use ironizing radiation to return a clear image, and that radiation can raise safety concerns for the fetus.
Luckily, there’s a whole range of tools that can detect cancer, and some are far safer for you and your baby. MRI, ultrasound and biopsy are all diagnostic options that don’t involve harmful radiation. If your doctor decides an X-ray or CT scan is needed, don’t fear: your abdomen will be covered with a lead shield to greatly minimize the risk to your baby.
It’s undeniable. Cancer sucks, and it sucks really bad. That much is clear. The uncertainty comes when you try to decide what to do with your diagnosis.
Weighing the Pros and Cons of Treatment Options
Like diagnostic tests, cancer treatment options vary in terms of risk and reward during pregnancy. Choosing your health or the health of your baby is a terribly tough decision, which is why your doctor will try their best to find the solution that brings the least amount of risk to you both.
Every cancer case is different and each pregnancy is unique. In turn, treatment will be very individualized, and the specific approach (radiation, chemotherapy, surgery, or a combination of several therapies) will depend on factors like:
- Stage of pregnancy
- Type and location of the cancer
- Tumor size
- Stage of cancer
- The mother’s wishes and priorities
Since treatment is most likely to cause trouble in the first trimester (especially chemotherapy), your doctor may wish to wait until your baby has developed further before starting therapy. Likewise, if cancer is caught towards the end of your pregnancy, it may be safer in all respects to wait until after your delivery to begin treatment. The point is, timing is a major element in treating cancer during pregnancy.
Of course, cancer brings a huge emotional burden as well, and combined with volatile hormonal changes during the course of your nine months, that can be a particularly heavy weight to bear — and can complicate your life in a number of ways.
A good support system is crucial when you’re dealing with any life-changing situation. Friends and family are important allies in your fight against cancer, but be sure you also use your medical team to your full advantage. Find an oncologist you can trust and connect with, and if that means making several consultations, so be it. And if you need more info or professional support, don’t hesitate to ask for a referral to a psychologist or behavioral therapist.
How Could Cancer Affect the Baby?
Cancer rarely affects the fetus, even if it spreads to the placenta. Fortunately, the placenta is able to both nourish and protect your baby from toxins, and that means very few chemotherapy chemicals (if any) will cross into the fetus. But while your baby is protected from direct infection, the effects of cancer treatment can cause harm to your body, and by extension, your baby’s.
Chemotherapy commonly causes anemia and malnutrition in patients, and though these may not be life-threatening side effects, they could lead to early labor, low birth weight, and slower immune system development.
The good news is recent studies have found no cognitive, cardiac, or general physical impairment of children who were exposed to cancer, chemotherapy and other cancer treatments in the womb.
In a 2015 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, 129 children who carried by mothers treated for cancer during their pregnancy were evaluated one, two and three years later. Although the rate of premature birth was higher than average, and premature babies generally struggle more with cognitive development, no other adverse mental or physical effects could be detected in the children.
Getting through your pregnancy with cancer is hard, but it can also be empowering. Take time to connect with other mothers-to-be who are fighting cancer, whether it’s through a support group or an online forum like hopefortwo.org. Take pride in your strength, and lean on other people who know what you’re going through to make your journey easier.