Understanding Breast Cancer Pregnancy
Expecting a baby is an exciting time, but it can also be a time of worry for some mothers-to-be. For pregnant women who've been diagnosed with breast cancer, the added stress of pregnancy can be overwhelming.
However, if you find yourself in this situation, know that you're not alone. Here's some information that may help you understand pregnancy-associated breast cancer.
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Breast Cancer Before, During, and after Pregnancy: What You Need to Know
Breast Cancer and Pregnancy
Breast cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in women worldwide. It occurs when breast cells grow out of control.
Usually, breast cancer starts off in the milk ducts or the lobules, then it can spread to other parts of the body, such as the lymph nodes, bones, liver, and lungs.
Most breast cancers are found in women who aren't pregnant. In fact, according to the National Cancer Institute, breast cancers occur in about 1 in 3,000 pregnant women.
The type of breast cancer that's diagnosed during pregnancy or within one year of giving birth is called "pregnancy-associated breast cancer" or "gestational breast cancer."
Symptoms of Breast Cancer
While the symptoms of breast cancer vary from person to person, there are some common signs that may be an indication of the disease. These include:
a lump or thickening in the breast tissue
changes in the size or shape of the breast
dimpling or puckering of the skin
fluid discharge from the nipple
redness or swelling around the nipple
If you experience any of these symptoms, it's important to see a doctor as soon as possible for further testing. With early detection, breast cancer can often be treated successfully.
How Pregnancy Can Affect Breast Cancer
For women diagnosed with breast cancer, there are a few ways that pregnancy can affect the disease:
- Pregnancy Can Make It More Difficult to Detect Early Stage Breast Cancer
Your breasts often become larger and feel tender during pregnancy. As a result, it may be harder to feel any lumps that might be present. In addition, changes in hormone levels can cause breast tissue to appear denser on mammograms, making it more difficult to spot tumors.
- Pregnancy Can Affect Treatment Options
Some treatments, such as radiation therapy and hormone therapy, may harm the developing baby. Other treatments, such as chemotherapy, may be used during pregnancy but carry a risk of causing birth defects, such as fetal malformations.
It's important to discuss all treatment options with your doctor to make sure that you're making the best decision for both you and your baby.
- Pregnancy Can Affect Breast Cancer Survivors
Pregnant women who've previously been treated for breast cancer may find that their risk of the disease returning is higher during pregnancy. This is because pregnancy can cause changes in hormone levels that may promote growth of breast cancer cells.
Breast Cancer before Pregnancy
There are a few things to keep in mind if you're considering pregnancy after a breast cancer diagnosis:
- Talk to Your Doctor about Your Situation
Before becoming pregnant, it's important to speak with your doctor about your specific situation. They can advise you on the best course of action for you and your baby.
For example, if you're taking certain cancer treatments, you may need to wait a period of time before trying to conceive. This is because some treatments can harm a developing fetus.
Your doctor can also help you manage any side effects that may occur during pregnancy, such as nausea and fatigue.
- Be Aware of Your Breast Cancer Risk Factors
If you've been diagnosed with breast cancer, it's important to be aware of your risk factors for the disease. This'll help you and your doctor make decisions about your care during and after pregnancy.
Some common risk factors for breast cancer include:
a family history of the disease
being over the age of 50
having certain genetic mutations, such as BRCA1 or BRCA2
Having one or more of these risk factors doesn't mean that you'll definitely develop breast cancer. However, it's important to be aware of them so that you can make informed decisions about your health.
- Find a Support System
Having a strong support system is crucial when dealing with any type of cancer. This is especially true if you're also coping with the added stress of pregnancy.
There are many organizations that offer support to pregnant women with breast cancer, such as the National Breast Cancer Foundation, Inc. and the National Breast Cancer Coalition. These organizations can provide you with information and resources to help you through this difficult time.
Additionally, speaking with other women who've been in your situation can be incredibly helpful. They can offer advice and understanding that only someone who has gone through it can provide.
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Breast Cancer during Pregnancy
It's important to remember that most pregnant and lactating women with breast cancer go on to have healthy babies. There are a variety of treatment options available, and the best course of action will vary depending on the individual situation.
Breast cancer in pregnancy is often classified according to the stage of pregnancy when the cancer is diagnosed:
- Stage 0-IIA
These breast cancer early stages have an excellent prognosis and can often be treated with surgery and radiation therapy. However, radiation therapy may not be safe for the developing baby.
If you're diagnosed with Stage 0-IIA cancer during the first trimester, it's generally safe to have surgery. Modified radical mastectomy is usually recommended, as it can help prevent the cancer from coming back.
You may need to wait until after the second or third trimester to undergo chemotherapy. Alternatively, lumpectomy or breast-conserving surgery may also be recommended, wherein only the tumor and a small margin of normal breast tissue are removed.
- Stage IIB-IV
These advanced breast cancers, also called "metastatic breast cancer," tend to be more aggressive and may require different treatments than early-stage cancers. The best course of action will depend on a variety of factors, such as the type and stage of cancer, as well as your overall health.
Treatment options for more advanced breast cancers during pregnancy may include radiation therapy and chemotherapy. However, these treatments shouldn't be given during the first trimester, as they can harm the developing baby.
How Is Breast Cancer Diagnosed during Pregnancy
Breast cancer during pregnancy is diagnosed in the same way as diagnosing breast cancer in non-pregnant women. However, there are a few special considerations to keep in mind.
Imaging tests such as mammogram and breast MRI or magnetic resonance imaging may be less accurate during pregnancy, due to the changes in breast tissue. As a result, your doctor may recommend additional tests, such as sentinel lymph node biopsy or fine-needle aspiration, to confirm the diagnosis, as long as the procedure can be performed safely.
Diagnosis can be tricky, as many of the symptoms of breast cancer (such as a lump in the breast) are also common during pregnancy. With this, it's important to consult with your doctor if you have any concerns.
Side Effects of Treatment for Breast Cancer during Pregnancy
While treatment for breast cancer is vital during pregnancy, it's important to be aware of the potential side effects.
Chemotherapy drugs can cross the placenta and enter the baby's bloodstream, which can lead to developmental problems. Meanwhile, radiation therapy can also cause damage to the developing embryo or fetus, and may increase the risk of miscarriage. Surgery to remove the cancerous breast mass may also pose risks, depending on how early in the pregnancy it's performed.
For mothers, physical side effects can include:
nausea and vomiting
higher risk of infection
changes in skin and nails
Emotionally, side effects can include:
fear for the baby's health
It's important to talk with your doctor about any side effects you experience during treatment. There are many ways to manage side effects, and your doctor can help you find the best plan for you. With proper treatment and support, you can be successful in managing breast cancer during pregnancy.
Breast Cancer after Pregnancy
After you've given birth, you'll continue with your breast cancer treatment according to the plan that was put in place before delivery. In most cases, this will involve a combination of surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy.
Once you've completed treatment for breast cancer, it's important to monitor your health closely. This means regular check-ups with your doctor and paying attention to any changes in your body.
If you're breastfeeding, you'll need to pump and store your breast milk until you finish treatment. This is because some cancer treatments can pass into breast milk and harm the baby.
Additionally, it's a good idea to make lifestyle changes that reduce your risk of developing cancer in the future. These changes include:
- Eating a Healthy Diet
Food plays a major role in cancer prevention. Eating a healthy diet can help reduce your risk of developing cancer, and it can also play a role in cancer treatment and prevention.
While there's no one “perfect” diet for cancer prevention, there are some general guidelines that can help you choose foods that are lower in cancer-causing agents.
For instance, eating plenty of fruits and vegetables is a good way to reduce your exposure to carcinogens.
- Avoiding Alcohol
While completing treatment for cancer, it’s important to focus on your recovery and getting back to your usual activities. For some people, this may include moderate alcohol consumption.
However, if you’ve been treated for cancer in the past, you may be wondering whether it’s safe to drink alcohol at all. The good news is that you can still enjoy an occasional drink–just be sure to avoid overdoing it.
Drinking too much alcohol can lead to increased risk of cancer recurrence in the future. So if you do choose to drink, stick to moderation. That means no more than one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men.
- Limiting Your Exposure to Radiation and Environmental Pollutants
We're all exposed to low levels of radiation and pollutants every day. However, sometimes, our exposure can be higher than usual, for example, if we have an X-ray or if we live near a factory that emits pollutants.
Although the risk of developing cancer from these exposures is low, it's important to limit your exposure as much as possible, especially if you've already had cancer. This is because repeated exposure to radiation and pollutants can increase the risk of cancer recurrence in the future.
You may ask your doctor for alternative tests that do not use radiation, such as MRI. You may also try to avoid living near factories or other sources of pollution.
- Exercising Regularly
It's no secret that exercise is good for your health. But did you know that regular exercise can also reduce your risk of cancer recurrence in the future?
That's right--according to the American Cancer Society, exercising for at least 150 minutes per week can help lower your risk of cancer returning. And it doesn't have to be intense exercise--even moderate activities like walking or biking can make a difference.
If you've had breast cancer surgery, it's especially important to exercise regularly. Wearing a sports bra during activity can help support your breasts and prevent pain.
And if you're worried about how you'll look while working out, don't be--there are plenty of cute and stylish sports bras available that'll make you feel confident and comfortable!
Breast Cancer and Future Fertility
Many women who are diagnosed with breast cancer are concerned about their future fertility. The good news is that, in most cases, breast cancer surgery doesn't have a major impact on future fertility. In fact, the vast majority of women who undergo breast surgery retain the ability to have children.
However, there are a few factors that can affect fertility after breast cancer surgery.
For example, certain types of chemotherapy can damage eggs and lead to early menopause. In addition, radiation therapy can cause scarring in the reproductive organs, which can impact fertility.
As a result, it's important to discuss fertility options with your doctor before beginning cancer treatment. With proper planning and care, most women are able to have children after breast cancer surgery.
Pregnancy-associated breast cancers are rare, but they do happen. If you're diagnosed with breast cancer while you're pregnant, know that you're not alone and that there are treatment options available.
Be sure to discuss all of your concerns with your doctor so that together, you can develop a treatment plan that's best for you and your baby.