Iris Mini: Pregnant with Cancer

About 1 in 1,000 pregnant women is diagnosed with cancer. The most common types of cancer in pregnant women are cervical cancer, breast cancer, melanoma, cancer of the thyroid, lymphoma (including Hodgkin Disease), and acute types of leukemia. 

 Most women can get cancer treatment during pregnancy without terminating the pregnancy or damaging the developing baby. However, it is important that a woman who is pregnant with cancer receives expert care. If possible, she should be treated in a cancer center or a medical-school-based program with experience in treating cancer during pregnancy. Comprehensive cancer care for pregnant women includes oncologists familiar with treating pregnant women, high-risk obstetrician (doctor who manages difficult pregnancies and complicated deliveries), a maternal-fetal medicine specialist (an obstetrician gynecologist with several years of extra training in managing health problems in mother and fetus during pregnancy), and a mental health professional who can help with decision-making and emotional support. 

 Treatment considerations:   

  • Chemo and other anticancer drugs can harm the fetus, cause birth defects, or lead to miscarriage — especially if they’re used during the first trimester of pregnancy. 

  • Some chemotherapies and other cancer-fighting drugs can safely be given during the second and third trimesters.

  • Radiation uses high-energy X-rays or particles to destroy cancer cells in your body. This therapy can harm an unborn baby, particularly if it’s used during the first trimester. It may be possible to give radiation therapy to distant areas of the body, such as the head or lower leg, safely during pregnancy. Radiation to the breast area is not considered safe for a fetus, even with modern computerized machines. 

  • Sometimes, radiation can safely be used in the second or third trimesters of pregnancy, but this depends on the type, dose, and area being treated.

  • Women should not be treated for thyroid cancer with radioactive iodine during pregnancy.  

  • Ask your oncologist about drugs used to control side effects of cancer treatment, including nausea, pain, depression or anxiety, or hot flashes. Some are not safe to take during pregnancy. Women often have pain during cancer treatment. During pregnancy, it is best to avoid aspirin or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) unless prescribed by your doctors, because they can promote bleeding.  

  • You may want to talk with your medical team about the potential impact of treatment on your pregnancy.  

Hope for Two is a support organization for pregnant women with cancer. 

 Iris mental health professionals are available to provide support around coping with a cancer diagnosis.