Childbirth and Cancer 

Cancer during pregnancy is rare, but it can and does occur. Cancer research in this vain is limited so women and doctors do not have an abundance of data peculiar to pregnancy and cancer to draw from. It is known that women with cancer are able to give birth to normal, healthy babies and that some treatments for cancer are safe during pregnancy, indicating that childbirth and cancer can occur simultaneously.

Types of Cancer That Tend To Occur

Pregnancy does not cause cancer nor are pregnant women more likely to get cancer than women who are not pregnant. However, there are types of cancer that tend to occur during pregnancy and they are linked to younger people. Cancers such as cervical cancer and breast cancer, Hodgkin lymphoma, malignant melanoma, and thyroid cancer are more often seen during pregnancy than other types of cancers. Since age factors in as a major risk for cancer, the fact that women are waiting longer to have babies is indicative of an increase in incidents of cancer during pregnancy. Lung cancer is extremely rare during pregnancy but the number of cases is growing as a result of increased use of tobacco among young women. Tobacco use coupled with waiting longer to conceive has an impact on the cancer rate.

Cancer In Pregnancy

There is a type of cancer that is peculiar to pregnancy. Gestational trophoblastic disease (GTD) is a cluster of tumors that develops from abnormal growth of cells within the uterus. Unlike cervical or endometrial cancers, which develop from the actual cells of the uterus, GTD tumors start in the cells that would normally grow to become the placenta during a pregnancy. What begins as a normal production of tissue and cells that layer and become the placenta - the organ that feeds and protects the growing baby - ends up in tumors. Most GTDs are benign, but some are cancerous. The good news is that all forms of GTD are treatable and most cases that are treated are completely cured.

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in pregnant women. Since pregnancy affects the growth of the breasts, enlargement makes it hard to find small tumors and mammograms are not routinely done during pregnancy. If cancer is suspected, the doctor and the woman may both have some reservations about having diagnostic x-rays taken. However, research seems to indicate that the level of radiation in diagnostic x-rays is low enough as to not affect the unborn baby. In some cases, a lead apron or shield can be used to cover the abdomen as another means of protection.

Discovering And Treating Cancer

Pregnancy can be the very thing that uncovers an undetected cancerous growth. A routine Pap test that is done as part of a prenatal exam can indicate cervical cancer. Ovarian cancer can be seen on an ultrasound. Once detected, treatment can be discussed and the best course can be chosen for the mother and the baby.

The type of treatment is dependent upon a number of factors, including how far along the pregnancy is; the type, stage of the cancer, location and size of the tumor or growth; and the express wishes of both the woman and her family. Some treatments can harm a baby, especially during the first trimester. As a result, treatment may be put off until the second or third trimester, or it may be left until after the baby is born. Treatments such as surgery, chemotherapy, and even radiation, must all be carefully considered before any action is taken. Chemotherapy and especially radiation have very devastating effects on the woman's body and are dangerous to the baby. If the choice is to wait until after the birth of the baby to begin treatment, then a woman is wise to take excellent care of herself during her pregnancy by eating well, exercising, and making sure she is getting enough sleep.

The Prognosis

A pregnant woman who has cancer usually has the same chances for recovery as a woman who is not pregnant and has cancer. The fact that treatment may be postponed until after the baby is born can definitely affect the outcome making the overall prognosis worse. Pregnancy can make some cancers worse because of the effect of hormones, however, cancer rarely affects the baby directly.

More information on cancer and pregnancy is available from the Canadian Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute.

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