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The Good News About Breast Cancer & Pregnancy

Many pregnant women who have breast cancer are waiting too long to treat the cancer, often out of fear of harming their fetus, and experts say that in most cases, it’s unnecessary.

Studies conducted at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston have shown pregnant women with breast cancer who forgo potentially life-saving treatment until after the baby’s birth are making a mistake: survival rate of moms was nearly twice as high for those who underwent aggressive treatment early than for those who waited until after the birth of their baby. Although cancer treatments will be determined based on the stage of a pregnancy. Women who have had surgery (lumpectomy or mastectomy) and/or chemotherapy treatment during their pregnancy, under careful recommendations by their doctors, suffered no apparent ill effects. The only treatment not recommended during pregnancy is radiation therapy, because it's difficult to protect the fetus from the intense, damaging rays. "The results show women they do not need to wait and do not need to terminate their pregnancies," says study’s lead author Beth Beadle, M.D., Ph.D.

Breast cancer is diagnosed in less than four percent of pregnant women, making it the most common cancer to occur during pregnancy. More troubling, the cancer may not be detected as early because normal prenatal breast changes can mask warning signs, says Dr. Beadle, For that reason, it's important for moms-to-be to pay attention to any new breast mass, a mass in the underarm, localized breast pain or skin changes, and to talk to their obstetrician about any concerns, says Dr. Beadle, a radiation oncologist at the Center.  An ultrasound and, if there is an abnormality, a biopsy may be needed.

Although the possible long-term effects of some cancer treatments on babies won't be known for a while, Dr. Beadle says there's good evidence that treatment is safe, and she hopes more women will become aware that it's a viable option during pregnancy.