Most pregnant women spend their time thinking about nursery designs, routine prenatal appointments and baby names. Breast cancer isn’t usually on the list of worries after conception, but the disease occurs at a rate of about one in 3,000 pregnancies, according to the National Cancer Institute. The progression of the pregnancy and the disease affect the outcome and treatment options.
Breast exams help detect abnormalities in the breast tissue. An ultrasound of the breast allows the doctor to create a picture of the breast tissue to help diagnose breast cancer during pregnancy. Mammograms are considered relatively safe during pregnancy and generally don’t put the baby at high risk. Biopsies use a sample of the tissue to diagnose breast cancer.
The breast changes that occur during pregnancy sometimes complicate the detection and diagnosis of breast cancer. Early in pregnancy the breasts are often swollen, tender or sore. This makes it difficult to detect a lump, particularly if it is small. According to the National Cancer Institute, mammograms aren’t always accurate for pregnant women, with some results coming up negative when a woman does have breast cancer.
The time frame of both the pregnancy and breast cancer play a role in creating a treatment plan. The treatment for breast cancer can potentially affect the baby. Breast cancer in an early stage gives the doctors more options for treatment. Late-stage breast cancer often needs more aggressive treatment, which can put the baby at greater risk. Most treatments beyond surgery are not recommended during the first three months of the pregnancy, limiting the treatment options for women in the first trimester.
Surgery is often used during pregnancy because it poses the least amount of risk to the baby. The lymph nodes under the arm typically come out with surgery, whether a mastectomy or lumpectomy is performed. Other treatments are often used in addition to surgery to get rid of any remaining cancerous cells. Radiation therapy is generally reserved for pregnant women with late-stage breast cancer due to the risk for the baby. Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill cancer cells. Neither chemotherapy or radiation are used during the first three months of pregnancy. Chemotherapy later in pregnancy sometimes results in preterm labor and may cause lower birth weights.
Breast cancer changes the course of medical care in pregnant women, but it doesn’t mean the baby is at risk. According to the National Cancer Institute, terminating the pregnancy doesn’t generally increase survival for the mother, so an abortion isn’t usually warranted. Work closely with your doctors to carry out the best treatment plan based on your specific situation.