When carrying a child, the last thing you would expect is a cancer diagnosis. Cancer during pregnancy is uncommon, but the number of women diagnosed with cancer while pregnant is expected to rise. This increase is due to more women waiting until they are older to have children, and the chance of developing most cancers progresses with age.
It is important to note that pregnancy does not cause cancer, and pregnant women do not have an increased risk of cancer compared to women who are not pregnant. However, being an expectant mother does not make you immune to some of the world’s most relentless forms of cancer.
Some common cancers diagnosed during pregnancy include:
- Breast cancer
- Cervical cancer
- Gestational trophoblastic tumor
- Hodgkin lymphoma
- Non-Hodgkin lymphoma
- Melanoma skin cancer
- Ovarian cancer
- Thyroid cancer
Diagnosing Cancer During Pregnancy
Pregnancy may delay a cancer diagnosis because some cancer symptoms, including breast changes, abdominal bloating, and frequent lightheadedness are also normal throughout pregnancy. On the other hand, carrying a baby in the uterus can sometimes help reveal cancer. For instance, a Pap smear or Pap test is a routine part of prenatal care. It helps your doctor determine if you are at risk of cervical cancer and other diseases. Also, an ultrasound performed during pregnancy could detect ovarian cancer.
If cancer is speculated during pregnancy, women and their doctors may be concerned about performing diagnostic exams. Tests that ensure the safety of pregnant women include:
- Computed tomography (CT or CAT) scans. CT scans are comparable to x-rays, though they are much more accurate and effective in diagnosing cancer and showing whether the disease has spread. CT scans of the head or chest are typically harmless during pregnancy because they do not directly expose the fetus to radiation. CT scans of the abdomen or pelvis, however, are risky and should only be done if absolutely necessary.
- X-ray. Though pregnant women are restricted from radiation, research shows that the level of radiation in diagnostic x-rays is too low to impact the fetus. But as a precaution, women are advised to use a lead shield to cover the abdomen during x-rays.
- Biopsy, ultrasound, and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) tests. These examinations are generally safe during pregnancy because they do not use ionizing radiation.
Cancer Treatment During Pregnancy
Treatment recommendations are based on various factors, including:
- Stage of the pregnancy
- Type, size, location, and stage of the cancer
- The expectant mother’s and her family’s decisions
Choosing the appropriate treatment option is crucial to the mother and her growing fetus. Treatment must be meticulously managed to ensure the woman and her unborn baby are safe. Cancer treatment during pregnancy needs close teamwork with a multidisciplinary medical team, which includes cancer specialists and high-risk obstetricians. These professionals can closely monitor the woman during treatment and make sure her child is healthy.
Effect of Cancer on the Fetus
The impact of cancer on the fetus are still widely unknown. In fact, cancer rarely has a direct influence on the fetus. Very few cancers can metastasize from the mother to her fetus. These cancers include malignant melanoma, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, leukemia, and small cell lung cancer.