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Breast Cancer During Pregnancy: What Happens Next?

Breast Cancer During Pregnancy: What Happens Next?
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Published on August 3, 2020

How Common Is Cancer During Pregnancy?

Cancer during pregnancy is rare, but it does happen. According to the Susan G. Komen Foundation, breast cancer is the most common cancer in pregnant and postpartum women, with approximately one case of breast cancer diagnosed per 3,000 pregnancies each year.

Other common malignancies associated with pregnancy are melanoma, cervical cancer, lymphomas and leukemias.1

Pregnancy Breast Cancer Symptoms

A woman’s body goes through many changes during pregnancy, making cancer challenging to diagnose. Your internal organs adjust to make room for a baby. You experience intense fatigue. Your blood flow increases. Some women notice changes in their skin.

Breast Cancer During Pregancy EmbedBreast changes are also common in pregnant women, but lumps are not.

If you experience anything out of the ordinary, alert your OB/GYN so they can administer a breast exam. Because symptoms of cancer can be masked by the side effects of pregnancy, it’s better to say something and be told it’s nothing rather than ignore the risk of breast cancer.  

Are All Breast Lumps Cancer?

Not all breast lumps are cancer. Clogged milk ducts and other breast changes can be painful. As the breasts prepare to nurse the baby, they will begin to feel different, even during a healthy pregnancy.

If you experience any pain in your breasts, tell your doctor. In the first trimester, you can undergo a breast ultrasound. Once you enter your second trimester, a mammogram will be a necessary diagnostic tool to learn more. To protect the baby during the mammogram, a shield will cover your growing bump.2

Can Breast Cancer Be Treated During Pregnancy?

Timing is everything during pregnancy. If you are diagnosed with breast cancer, you may be able to safely have chemotherapy while pregnant, depending on how far along you are. You may even be a candidate for surgery. It’s important to consult an oncologist who specializes in breast cancer.

 Here are a few factors that your medical team will consider as they determine the next steps.

  • The size of the tumor
  • The location of the tumor
  • If the cancer has spread and, if so, how far
  • How far along you are in the pregnancy
  • Your overall health
  • Your preferences3

In some cases, women who receive a cancer diagnosis may have the option to delay breast cancer treatment until after they deliver their baby. Treatments such as radiation therapy, hormone therapy, or targeted therapy are likely to be delayed because of safety concerns.

Breast Feeding After Cancer

The good news is, women can safely deliver a baby even during a crisis like breast cancer. But what about after the baby is born? Will you be able to nurse?

If you have been diagnosed with breast cancer, most doctors will recommend bottle feeding instead of breastfeeding. If breast surgery is scheduled and you’ve already started breastfeeding, stopping will reduce blood flow to the breasts. It also helps lessen the opportunity for infection. This can be a gut-wrenching decision for new moms who want to bond with their newborns.

While skin to skin contact is a great way for bonding to occur, it can happen outside of feeding time. As new moms, we are inundated with messages from society about what is best for mom and baby, but the most important thing is your health and the baby’s health. As a new mom myself, 12 years ago, I had to supplement with formula, and it all worked out just fine.

If you develop breast cancer while pregnant, help and support are available. As always, talk to your doctor to get the care that’s right for you.

Sign up for Patient Power e-news to get the latest in breast cancer care delivered right to your inbox. 

~Lauren Evoy Davis


References:

1Hepner A, et al. Cancer During Pregnancy: The Oncologist Overview. World J Oncol. 2019;10(1):28-34.

2Breast Cancer Treatment During Pregnancy. Susan G. Komen.

3Treating Breast Cancer During Pregnancy. American Cancer Society.

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