Over 2 million women are impacted by breast cancer each year. It is the second most common malignancy affecting pregnancy. October being breast cancer month, we are taking this time to reflect on some of the issues that women think about when they hear of breast cancer and more specifically having breast cancer during pregnancy.
Being pregnant is a great gift for most women, however, it can be frustrating to be diagnosed with breast cancer when you are pregnant.
Breast cancer during pregnancy is referred to as pregnancy-associated breast cancer (PABC).
Common Questions Women Have about Breast Cancer and Pregnancy
These are some of the common questions women have about PABC:
1. Can breast cancer affect my baby?
There has been no evidence to prove that breast cancer during pregnancy can affect your baby’s development in the womb and you cannot pass cancer to your baby when pregnant. There is also no evidence that your baby will develop cancer later in life.
2. Can I continue my pregnancy if I have breast cancer?
Most women think that once they are diagnosed with breast cancer they must terminate their pregnancy. This is not always the case. Breast cancer treatment can be done while you are still carrying your pregnancy.
The decision to terminate the pregnancy can only be made by you or you and your partner, if there is a partner involved. Termination may be discussed in cases where chemotherapy has been recommended during the first trimester, especially if the breast cancer is a type that can grow fast and spread to other body parts.
Before making a decision on whether to terminate the pregnancy or not, you should take time to think about it and get medical advice from your specialist.
3. Is breast cancer during pregnancy more aggressive?
There is no evidence to this concern, however, there can be delay in diagnosis which can lead to the cancer being diagnosed at a later stage.
4. Is a mammogram safe to have while I am pregnant?
A mammogram is a breast x-ray which can be used to diagnose any changes in your breast during pregnancy and shielding can be done to protect your baby from the radiation.
5. Can I breastfeed my baby if I have breast cancer?
Breastfeeding is possible for women with breast cancer and especially those who do not need chemotherapy, radiotherapy, targeted therapy or hormone therapy after they have had surgery. However, you should talk to your doctor about it to find out what is best for you and your baby.
In most cases, the doctor might recommend not breastfeeding or not starting to breastfeed if you are about to start breast cancer treatment. Therefore, you should not breastfeed because the chemotherapy drugs can travel through breast milk to your baby.
6. What is the best treatment for breast cancer during pregnancy?
Breast cancer during pregnancy depends on the size of the tumour, where it is located and your pregnancy term. Surgery is usually the first step of the treatment to remove the lump with little risk to the unborn child. This can either be lumpectomy (breast-conserving surgery) or mastectomy. In the first trimester, mastectomy may be offered because most women who have this surgery done do not need radiotherapy which may be required after breast-conserving surgery.
If the cancer is diagnosed in the second trimester, breast-conserving surgery may be done which can be followed by chemotherapy and radiotherapy can be done after.
If your pregnancy is in the third trimester, breast-preserving surgery is done as radiotherapy can be started once the baby is born.
The surgery can also involve removing the lymph nodes near the breast such as those under the arm.
7. Will I give birth at the normal time?
When you give birth will depend on the breast cancer treatment you need and your due date. Most mothers usually give birth after their full term of their pregnancy, however if you have to give birth earlier, you will get steroid injections to help in your baby’s development and reduce the risk of your baby having breathing problems.
It is possible to have a healthy baby even if you have breast cancer. However, early detection is key and therefore, every woman should purpose to do regular breast self-exam because early diagnosis leads to more effective treatment.