The diagnosis of cancer during pregnancy has increased because of delayed childbearing age, advanced imaging techniques during antenatal care, and the known occurrence of age-dependent malignancies.
Cancer, as of now, is considered to be a disease of lifestyle, and a majority of cancers occur in middle and late age. With the postponement of marriage and childbearing in the late thirties, it is not surprising that the number of women diagnosed with pregnancy and concomitant cancer is increasing. Further, pregnancy experience during cancer treatment is also posing a challenge for obstetricians, oncologists, and pediatricians. In both cases, there are many issues to be tackled. However, as of now, we do not have foolproof therapeutic options to many questions due to the lack of clinical trials on ethical grounds. Hence, cancer in pregnancy, its treatment, and the outcome is a relatively new and interesting specialty. Although the published data is scant, this new and exciting branch is spreading its wings.
The most common types of cancer seen in pregnancy are:
Breast cancer - It is the most common type of cancer seen during pregnancy. It is estimated that around 1 in 3000 women are affected by this type of cancer during pregnancy.
Gestational trophoblastic disease.
It is usually hard to diagnose cancer when a person is pregnant. This is because some of the symptoms of pregnancy, such as bloating, headaches, or rectal bleeding, are also commonly seen during pregnancy. So cancer-related changes will be noticed later in pregnant women. There are some tests used by doctors to detect cancers in pregnancy. These tests are usually safe during pregnancy and for the fetus.
X-ray: It is found that when the level of radiation is low, it does not harm the fetus. If possible, a shield can be given to cover the abdomen during the radiation.
MRI (magnetic resonance imaging).
Special registries are ongoing, and more are required to identify the epidemiology of its coexistence and outcome with a special focus on offspring. Now, there are online communities where women are given advice as well as encouraged to enroll in the cancer and childbirth registry. Such registries serve as tools to analyze outcomes. Short term - at the time of birth, and long-term - as these individuals become adults. These registries also become repositories of information for pregnant women with cancer as it gives them access to their peer group and treatment options being sought by them.
The tragedy of being diagnosed with a malignancy during pregnancy or the patient getting pregnant while taking treatment for cancer raises many issues. Is termination of pregnancy necessary or advantageous? Will the malignant neoplasm or therapy for it adversely affect the fetus? Should the therapy be deferred until delivery? If treatment is to be started after delivery, should it be started immediately in puerperium or after six weeks? Can the mother lactate while receiving radiotherapy or chemotherapy? Should the patient be advised against future pregnancy, and if yes, then what contraception is to be advised? Is pregnancy possible after cancer treatment? Are children of mothers treated with cancer at a higher risk of cancer? Will they have normal intelligence?
Of great concern are the issues around therapeutic priorities, risks to the mother and fetus, and chances of cure. If chemotherapy is to be given, then should it be given according to the present weight of the mother or weight at the time of conception? The emotional trauma of not having the desired pregnancy, especially if it is the first child for the couple who are in their late thirties or early forties, is tremendous.
With the introduction of targeted molecular therapies, there is a paradigm shift in the management of cancers as molecular pathways are employed to treat cancers. Molecular pathways are involved in the physiological process, and hence drugs used in the mother can cause damage to the fetus. This is especially true for tyrosine kinase inhibitors which are small molecules and hence can pass the placenta easily and damage the fetus.
The therapeutic management of pregnant women requires specific “optimal gold standards.” The medical personnel involved should try to benefit the mother’s life, treat her curable cancers, protect the fetus from the harmful effects of treatment, retain the mother’s reproductive system intact for future pregnancies, preserve her ova in case the reproductive function is affected, and last but not the least is to give immense emotional support.
All this requires a multidisciplinary team approach where obstetrician, neonatal, pediatric oncologist, neonatal pediatrician, anesthetist, oncopathologist, psychologist, and medical social worker need to work together. Of course, it goes unsaid that the family's support for the pregnant woman is a must. All patients at the time of delivery should have their placenta thoroughly examined by the oncopathologist, and histopathology must be done. Chromosomal analysis should be done on the placenta as well as on the newborn. Cord blood analysis for cytology and cord blood banking should be done. All these matters should be discussed in advance with the mother and the family.
Accumulating evidence suggests that pregnancy per se is not a poor prognostic factor for a patient's survival. Two previous studies found that pregnancy does not have a deleterious effect on the prognosis of gynecological or breast cancers and that pregnancy should be preserved whenever possible. In addition, it was also found that prognosis and treatment success depends on the individual patient and that it is possible to provide standard therapy to the mother while safeguarding the fetus.
Hematologic cancers represent a bigger dilemma. According to another study, these malignancies pose a substantial risk to both mother and fetus, and pregnancy termination is often advisable in the early stages, which will allow for optimum delivery of the therapy.
Treatment largely depends on the type of malignancy and its characteristics. In some cases, such as with indolent lymphomas, treatment can be delayed without jeopardizing the health of the mother. In another case, cancer cells can be transmitted vertically to the placenta or the fetus, a rare phenomenon seen only with malignant melanoma.
In general, as far as treatment is concerned, radiotherapy should be avoided in all trimesters of pregnancy. Surgery can be done in any trimester. All anti-neoplastic drugs are theoretically teratogenic and mutagenic. Both mother and fetus are therefore at risk. Although different classes of teratogens have been established, certain general principles apply to all.
But in a nutshell, chemotherapy can be safely given in the third trimester of pregnancy, barring few drugs like Methotrexate, Aminopterin, and targeted molecular therapies. In the second trimester, chances of spontaneous abortion, premature delivery, fetal death in utero, and intrauterine growth retardation are high.
With more and more advancement in techniques, it will be feasible in the future to know the overall impact of cancer treatment on the developing fetus. Whether cord blood for future stem cell therapy in such children will be required or not, we are yet to experience it.
Breast cancer is the most common cancer found during pregnancy. It affects about 1 in 3000 women who are pregnant.
Cancer during pregnancy is not common. When it happens, it can be more complex to diagnose and treat. Pregnancy by itself does not cause cancer, and being pregnant does not increase the risk of developing cancer.
Some treatments may harm the fetus during pregnancy, and doctors avoid using those treatments until after the baby is born. For example, radiation therapy uses high-energy x-rays to destroy cancer cells. Treatments that are safe during pregnancy are surgery chemotherapy in the second and third trimesters.
The transition from a normal cell to cancer is driven by changes to a cell’s DNA, also known as mutations. The most common cancer that is hereditary is breast, colon, and prostate cancer. A mutation in a gene causes them.
Cervical cancer during pregnancy is very uncommon. The ability to get pregnant and carry a pregnancy will vary depending on what type of treatment you receive for your cervical cancer. Early-stage cervical cancer can be treated with surgical approaches that preserve your ability to become pregnant. If you require a hysterectomy or radiation, you would not be able to. However, there are options through assisted reproductive technology.
Many women who have cancer or have survived it can give birth to healthy babies. The risk of infection during the later stages of pregnancy due to the chemotherapy can indirectly harm the baby during or right after the birth. Hence sometimes, the doctor may consider inducing labor early to protect the baby from your cancer treatment.
Treatment of breast cancer during pregnancy depends on various factors such as the size of the tumor, where the tumor is located, and overall health. It is generally safe to have surgery for breast cancer while you are pregnant. Chemotherapy seems safe for the baby in the second or third trimester of pregnancy. Other treatments, such as hormone therapy, targeted therapy, and radiation therapy, are more likely to harm the baby and are not usually given during pregnancy.
Cancer very rarely affects the growing fetus, and it is highly uncommon for a mother to pass cancer on to her baby during pregnancy. Although one in thousand live births involves a mother with cancer, only a minimal number of cases have maternal-fetal transmission.
In breast cancer during pregnancy, signs such as tenderness and swelling are also common in pregnancy and breast cancer. It is essential to watch for other additional symptoms such as dimpling of the skin, bloody fluid from the nipple or scaly skin on the breast, and any unusual thickening in one area of the breast.
It is difficult to diagnose cancer during pregnancy as the clinical symptoms during cancer mimic that of pregnancy, such as bloating, headaches, or rectal bleeding. Breast changes are also normal during pregnancy. Cancer-related changes in pregnant women may be noticed later in pregnancy. X-ray and CT scans must be used only when needed. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), ultrasound, and a biopsy are usually safe during pregnancy.
Last reviewed at:
21 Jan 2022 - 5 min read
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