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Cancer diagnosis during pregnancy

5-minute read

It’s very rare to receive a cancer diagnosis during pregnancy, but it can happen. If it happens to you, you might need to make some difficult decisions about treatment and whether to continue with your pregnancy. Whatever you decide, you are not alone — there are many people and organisations you can turn to for information and support.

Can I be diagnosed with cancer while I am pregnant?

Receiving a cancer diagnosis while you’re pregnant is very rare — but pregnancy does not protect you from cancer.

Some women have no symptoms and are diagnosed with a cancer of their reproductive organs when their doctors perform cancer screening. This includes screening for cervical and breast cancer during a routine visit in early pregnancy. In such cases, the diagnosis may come as a shock, and you may need to take some time to come to terms with it.

Other women may see their doctor with symptoms which are found to be due to cancer.

If you notice any unusual symptoms, such as a lump in your breast, unexpected vaginal discharge or bleeding, or persistent pain in your pelvis, see your doctor or obstetrician to have the symptoms checked.

I am pregnant and have been diagnosed with cancer. What are my options?

If you are pregnant and have been diagnosed with cancer, your options will depend on the type of cancer, how far it has spread and the stage of your pregnancy. In some cases, cancer can be treated during pregnancy with minimal risk to your baby. In other cases, it may be safe to delay treatment until after your baby is born, although you may need to be checked more often by your doctor.

In some situations, you might need treatment which would be unsafe for your pregnancy. In this case, your doctor may advise you to consider termination. This will be a difficult and stressful option to consider, and you might find it helpful to discuss your options with your doctor and other people you trust. They will aim to give you the support and advice you need.

How is cancer treated during pregnancy?

Cancer is usually treated in at least one of 3 ways:

  1. surgery
  2. radiotherapy
  3. chemotherapy

Surgery for cancer can often be performed safely during pregnancy. Radiotherapy, which uses x-rays to kill cancer cells, can be particularly dangerous for an unborn baby and is usually not the preferred option during pregnancy. Radiotherapy can, however, be started right after your baby is born. Chemotherapy uses strong medicines to kill cancer cells and can sometimes be used safely after the first trimester.

In most cases, your cancer will be treated differently if you are pregnant. This will depend on the type of cancer, how advanced it is, and on the stage of your pregnancy. Decisions about your treatment will only be made after a team of doctors, including oncologists (or cancer doctors) and your obstetrician, have carefully considered all your options — and taken into account your views, wishes and concerns.

You can find out more in this article on cancer treatment and pregnancy.

Will the cancer affect my baby?

It is very unlikely that your baby will get cancer directly from you. However, cancer and its treatment can cause other changes in your body which may affect your baby’s health and development. The exact changes you experience will depend on your general health and the type of cancer you have but can include poor nutrition and immune function.

Stress and anxiety, which are obviously very common after you receive a cancer diagnosis during pregnancy, can also affect yours and your baby’s wellbeing.

If you have chosen to delay cancer treatment until after your baby is born, you and your doctor may decide to induce labour. This means your baby will be born a little early, which may affect their health.

Following your doctor’s advice, seeking help and support when you need it, and importantly, looking after yourself, can minimise the effects of your cancer and its treatment on your baby.

Who can I talk to for more information and support?

Receiving a cancer diagnosis is stressful at any time, but especially tough during pregnancy. You may need to take in a lot of information quickly and make difficult decisions that will affect not only you but your growing family. Where possible, and if it suits you, you might find it useful to have someone with you when you see your doctor. They can help by taking notes for you if you find the experience overwhelming.

Remember, you don’t have to do this alone; your doctor and other people you trust can support you and help you consider your options.

You can also contact the following organisations for more information and support:

Sources:

PubMed.Gov (Gynecologic cancers in pregnancy: guidelines based on a third international consensus meeting), Leukaemia Foundation (Pregnancy with a blood cancer 2021), Cancer Australia (Breast Cancer - Pregnancy), Cancer Council (Can cancer pass from mother to baby during pregnancy?), BMJ Open (Pregnancy-associated cancers and birth outcomes in children: a Danish and Swedish population-based register study)

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: June 2021


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