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Breast cancer during pregnancy

Find out about how breast cancer is diagnosed and treated if you are pregnant and where you can get help and support.

Finding out you have breast cancer while you are pregnant is very upsetting. You are likely to feel a range of emotions including anger, sadness or fear.

Breast cancer during pregnancy is rare, but numbers have been increasing over the past few years. Research shows that breast cancer is reported in 1 in every 3,000 pregnancies. Most women are between 32 and 38 years old at diagnosis. Most are able to carry on with their pregnancy.

Rarely, some women may need to think about whether to end the pregnancy (termination). This will be discussed with you, especially if you:

  • need chemotherapy
  • are less than 14 weeks pregnant

Even then, it might be possible to delay your chemotherapy treatment until you are more than 14 weeks pregnant. Deciding to end your pregnancy is a very difficult decision and only you can make it. It can help to discuss your options with your family, breast care nurse, cancer specialist and your obstetrician. Research shows that being pregnant does not make your cancer grow more quickly.

Diagnosing breast cancer

Your breasts change when you are pregnant, becoming ready for breastfeeding. The breast tissue becomes more dense.

This can make it more difficult to find changes in the breasts. If you feel any lumps, even when you are pregnant – see your GP. Your GP will examine you and if they have any concerns they will refer you to a breast clinic.

If you’re pregnant doctors don’t usually recommend a:

  • CT scan
  • bone scan

This is due to the potential risk to the baby from the radiation.

Treating breast cancer

The aim is to balance treatment for your cancer and keeping your baby safe and well.

You'll have a team including cancer doctors, obstetricians and midwives looking after you and making a plan for your treatment. Doctors try and keep your treatment as close as possible to what someone who isn’t pregnant would have. This includes not delaying treatment.

The type of treatment you have depends on:

  • your wishes
  • how many weeks pregnant you are (which trimester you are in)
  • your type of breast cancer and if your cancer has spread

Surgery

Surgery is possible at any time during pregnancy. Having reconstructive surgery to your breast at the same time as having the cancer removed can make the operation much longer. Sometimes, your team will recommend you have a second operation to do this after you have given birth.

Radiotherapy

Doctors normally recommend having radiotherapy after you’ve given birth. This is because they don't want the baby exposed to radiation. If there is no other option than having radiotherapy, there are some changes that can be made to help protect your baby.

Chemotherapy

You can’t have chemotherapy if you are in your first trimester of pregnancy. The chemotherapy can harm the baby or cause a miscarriage. Your doctor will want to delay your chemotherapy treatment until you are at least 14 weeks pregnant.

At the moment research shows that after 14 weeks, children exposed to chemotherapy don’t have any more problems than those who aren’t exposed.

Your chemotherapy should stop 3-4 weeks before delivery. 

This is because chemotherapy:

  • increases the risk of infection during delivery
  • increases your risk of bleeding when giving birth

Hormone and biological therapy treatment

Doctors do not recommend hormone treatment or biological therapies for breast cancer until after you have given birth. It could harm the developing baby. You might start your hormone therapy after you've had your baby. You can't have hormone treatment while you are breastfeeding.

Talk this through with your specialist team.

Other treatments

There are lots of ways of controlling sickness or pain for women who are pregnant. Research shows that common anti-sickness medicines such as ondansetron are safe to take in pregnancy.

Having your baby

Your team will plan for you to have your baby as close to your due date as possible. Depending on your treatment plan and due date your obstetrician might induce your birth so you have a vaginal delivery. Or it may be safer to have a caesarean section.

Breast cancer has never been known to spread to a baby. The doctors will collect your placenta after birth and look at it down a microscope. It’s very rare, but cancer cells could spread there.

Your cancer doctor and midwife will let you know if you will be able to breastfeed after your baby is born. Some cancer drugs pass into the breast milk.

Practical and emotional support

After you have had your baby you may need to continue treatment. This might make caring for your baby more difficult, especially if you have other children at home.

Ask for help if you need it. It might help to plan ahead and find out what people close to you can do to help.

Your team can also refer you to a counsellor for extra support at this difficult time.

You can also call the Cancer Research UK nurses on 0808 800 4040 Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm, to talk about being pregnant, having breast cancer and any concerns you have
Last reviewed: 
21 Dec 2015
  • Breast cancer diagnosed during pregnancy- adapting recent advances in breast cancer care for pregnant patients.
    Loibl and others, 2015. JAMA Oncology. Vol. 1, Issue 8.

  • Breast cancer in pregnancy: recommendations of an international consensus meeting.
    Frederic and others, 2010. European Journal of Cancer. Vol. 46.

  • Breast carcinoma during pregnancy – international recommendations from an expert meeting.
    Loibl and others, 2006. Cancer. Vol. 106, Issue 2.

  • Pregnancy and breast cancer
    Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, March 2011.

  • Radiotherapy during pregnancy: fact and fiction.
    HB Kal and H Struikmans, 2005. The Lancet Oncology, Vol 6.

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