Chemotherapy and Pregnancy

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) reports that one woman in 1,000 experiences cancer complications during her pregnancy. The most common types include breast, cervical, thyroid, and ovarian cancer as well as leukemia and lymphoma.

If you or a loved one fall into this category, you may understandably feel anxious and upset. While treating cancer during pregnancy requires some special adaptations, in most cases it is not significantly riskier for women or their unborn babies. In fact, a study of 400 women published in The Lancet Oncology in August 2012 suggests that chemotherapy doesn’t harm the baby at all.

Preferable to Start Chemotherapy After the First Trimester

The first trimester of pregnancy lasts until the 12th to 14th week. Although the developing baby is minuscule, his or her organs are developing at a rapid rate. For this reason, most doctors delay starting chemotherapy until the start of the second semester if possible. Regardless of when chemotherapy starts, discontinuing it approximately eight weeks prior to delivery is ideal. The reason for this is that chemotherapy can lower white blood cell counts. An insufficient amount of white blood cells can increase the likelihood of infection for mother and baby at the time of delivery several weeks later.

Outcomes of the Study for You to Consider

Women who chose to forgo chemotherapy or schedule an early delivery didn’t necessarily have better outcomes than those who received it during the recommended window. A full one-third of pregnant women who bypassed chemotherapy gave birth to premature infants. This is nearly twice as many as those who received the cancer-killing drugs and unexpectedly gave birth early.

We encourage you to weigh the risks of chemotherapy to you and your baby against the long-term struggles of a premature birth. The staff at Cecil B. Highland, Jr. and Barbara B. Highland Cancer Center at UHC understands you are in a difficult position and we will present all options to you and your partner in detail.

Some other interesting outcomes of the research study referenced above include:

  • No difference in birth defects was apparent between babies born to mothers who waited to start chemotherapy until after delivery and those who received chemotherapy while pregnant.
  • Babies exposed to chemotherapy in the womb had a slightly lower birth weight than those who were not exposed to it.
  • Babies born before the 37th week of pregnancy experienced more complications, whether their mothers received chemotherapy or not.

Other Things You Should Know About Cancer Treatment and Pregnancy

What should be one of the happiest times of your life is now fraught with uncertainty due to your cancer diagnosis. However, we would like to assure you that you cannot give your baby cancer because of a barrier between your body and the baby’s body. This barrier prevents cancer cells from traveling into the baby’s blood supply or his or her body. Here are some other factors that may help you reach a decision about treatment:

  • Numerous studies in addition to the one referenced above indicate that receiving chemotherapy during the second trimester and first half of the third trimester is safe for both mother and baby.
  • The fact that more women delay childbearing has a direct correlation to the number who receive a cancer diagnosis during pregnancy.
  • Undergoing treatment for cancer may affect your ability to get pregnant again in the future. We encourage you to speak to a fertility specialist if you are concerned about this possibility.
  • If your doctor thinks you need hormonal therapy, this can wait until after you have delivered your baby.

Creating a treatment plan for a pregnant woman who has cancer requires additional time and consideration. Please be patient with yourself during this process and don’t hesitate to bring up concerns your care team may not have addressed.

Please note, the information provided throughout this site is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. All content, including text, graphics, images, and video, on or available through this website is for general information purposes only. If you are experiencing related symptoms, please visit your doctor or call 9-1-1 in an emergency.