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Treating cancer during pregnancy

5-minute read

There are a couple of reasons why someone might need cancer treatment while pregnant: either they fall pregnant while being treated for an existing cancer, or they receive a diagnosis of cancer during your pregnancy. Should this happen to you, you will usually be treated by a team of specialist doctors that can support and advise you about the risks and benefits of treatment, both to you and your pregnancy.

How is cancer treated during pregnancy?

Cancer is usually treated in at least one of 3 ways: using surgery to remove the cancer itself, or chemotherapy and/or radiotherapy, both of which kill fast-growing cancer cells. Because these treatments may be harmful to a developing pregnancy, you will need advice from your medical team about the risks and benefits of each treatment.

In some cases, you may be able to delay your treatment until later in the pregnancy, when it is safer, or until after your baby is born. In other cases, you may be advised to start treatment straight away, but it may be given on a different schedule or at a lower dose.

Pregnant women with cancer are usually treated by a medical team made up of several different specialists. Together, you can decide the best approach both to treating your cancer and to minimising any risks to your baby. How you feel about your cancer treatment is important, so your views, wishes and concerns will always be taken into account by your health team.

Can I have surgery to remove a cancer while I am pregnant?

Surgery to remove a cancer can often be performed safely during pregnancy. Cancers that are far away from the abdomen (such as skin cancers) can often be removed easily. Surgery to remove cancers in the abdomen or the reproductive system may need to be planned by your medical team, but they can often still be performed safely and effectively.

If you need to have surgery on your reproductive organs, your doctor may advise you to first have your baby by caesarean section to reduce the risk of damage to these organs.

Is chemotherapy safe during pregnancy?

Chemotherapy uses strong medicines that attack fast-growing cells, such as cancer cells. Since a pregnancy also involves many fast-growing cells, chemotherapy can be harmful to a developing unborn baby. The treatment can also increase the chance of miscarriage, premature birth and birth defects. This is especially true during the first trimester, when most of your baby’s organs are developing.

However, in some cases where your doctor may still recommend chemotherapy to treat your cancer. If so, they will choose the medicines and doses of chemotherapy that have the greatest chance of treating your cancer, with the lowest risk of causing harm to your baby.

If you do receive chemotherapy during pregnancy, you doctor may advise you to stop it a few weeks before your baby is due to be born. This is to give your baby’s immune system time to recover from the chemotherapy and offer them the best chance to fight off any infections they may be exposed to after birth.

Is radiation therapy safe during pregnancy?

Radiation therapy uses x-rays to kill fast-growing cells. Because your baby’s cells are also fast-growing, radiation therapy is generally not recommended during pregnancy.

In rare cases, your doctor may still advise you to have radiation therapy during pregnancy. They will discuss with you the risks and benefits, both to you and your baby, of receiving this treatment.

Is it safe to delay cancer treatment until my baby is born?

In some cases, it may be safe to delay cancer treatment until your baby is born. These can include cases of cancer that are slow growing, or where you are diagnosed relatively late in your pregnancy. If you delay cancer treatment, you may need to be monitored more closely by your doctors so they can check that your pregnancy is progressing normally and that your cancer is stable.

If you are diagnosed with cancer late in your pregnancy, your doctor may discuss inducing labour so you can start treatment sooner and with no risk to your pregnancy.

Who can I talk to for more information and support?

Having cancer treatment during pregnancy can be physically draining and emotionally challenging. Many women find it helpful to seek support from their doctors and from other people they trust. You might like to approach a support group or online forum.

There are also many organisations you can turn to for more information and support, including:

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Last reviewed: July 2021

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