Cancer Treatment During Pregnancy: New Study Offers Hope

Cancer during pregnancy: three little words that probably strike fear into every mother's heart. None of us expect to receive a cancer diagnosis when we're expecting a child, but it happens: about 1 in 1,000 women face this terrifying situation during their pregnancy—and doctors believe these numbers will grow, since the risk of cancer rises with age and more women are delaying having children.

For pregnant women, cancer treatment options have often seemed like a horrible gamble. Start treatment right away, exposing the unborn baby to toxic drugs? Delay treatment until after birth, and potentially compromise the mother's health? In the past, some doctors have chosen to deliver the baby early—and some may even recommend termination.

A recent study seems to offer some encouraging news for pregnant cancer patients, and one researcher says he hopes the study changes how doctors approach treatment.


Researchers in the Lancet Oncology journal report that they have examined medical records and test results of 70 children whose pregnant mothers had chemotherapy, marking the first time such children were thoroughly examined over the long term.

The good-news results? Chemotherapy does not appear to pose serious long-term health consequences for the unborn fetus.

Children in the study were not found to be at risk for heart, hearing, or nervous system disorders, or general health and growth problems—leading researchers to conclude that babies exposed to chemotherapy develop the same as other children. In fact, another result from the study suggests that delivering a baby early in order to start treatment is often more harmful to the baby than going ahead with chemo, since children born prematurely did have an increased risk of lower scores on intelligence and memory tests.

The study's findings suggest that pregnant women can be treated almost the same as other cancer patients, with minimal risk to the fetus. (There are caveats: chemo shouldn't happen during the first trimester, and radiation therapy is best done in the first two trimesters.) Researchers believe the placenta acts as a kind of filter for chemotherapy drugs, and that the blood-brain barrier of a fetus offers more protection than what was previously believed.

One of the paper's authors, Dr. Frederic Amant, said he hopes this study opens up treatment options for some women:

Many (doctors) aren't keen to give chemotherapy to pregnant women and may even recommend termination. But treating a pregnant woman with cancer doesn't have to be so different from treating a cancer patient who isn't pregnant.

Of course, this latest information doesn't definitively prove that chemo during pregnancy is safe, and larger studies are needed, but it seems like reassuring news all the same. I can't imagine a more heartbreaking decision than trying to balance what's best for mother and baby during such a difficult time, and I hope this study offers some peace of mind to doctors and patients alike.

Are you surprised this kind of study hasn't happened before?

Image via Flickr/Phil and Pam

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