Pregnancy No Hindrance to Breast Cancer Treatment, Study Says

"[I]t is important to use birth control, because chemotherapy can have harmful side effects to the fetus in the first trimester," she said. "However, in the second and third trimester, we can use chemotherapy very successfully with minimal harm to the baby.

Diagnosis During Pregnancy Becoming More Common

According to statistics from the American Cancer Society, breast cancer associated with pregnancy is rare, but it does happen in about one in 3,500 pregnancies.

And current trends suggest that this rate could be on the rise.

"We are noticing that we are seeing more patients being diagnosed with breast cancer during pregnancy," Perkins said.

The primary reason for this is that pregnant women, on average, are getting older. In 1982, the median age of a pregnant woman was 26.0 years; in 2002, this figure stood at 27.4 years.

"As the age at which child birth increases for women due to career goals and other reasons, we are expecting the incidence to increase," Perkins said. "We receive several phone calls a month from women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer and who are pregnant who have been told that overall they have an abysmal diagnosis."

When Cancer Goes Undetected

While the new study has good news to offer women who require breast cancer treatment while pregnant, it also exposes a disturbing fact -- pregnant women with breast cancer tend to be diagnosed later than those who are not pregnant. This means that by the time their cancers are found, they are generally worse.

"Women who present with breast cancer while pregnant on average have more advanced disease," Perkins said. "This represents a phenomenon of delayed diagnosis. In many cases they don't find out that they have breast cancer until after delivery."

Part of the problem is the fact that pregnant women naturally experience changes in the breast. These expected changes may mask breast cancer symptoms, making detection less likely by both these women and their doctors.

"The natural tendency is to say that this is a benign process, and that we don't have to be concerned about it," Perkins said.

But Perkins added that he remains hopeful that as more evidence comes out that pregnant women have little to fear from cancer treatment, more will have stories similar to Sanchez's. On Nov. 26, 2007, her baby, Isabella, was born. And Sanchez said that thus far, her daughter is meeting all of the normal benchmarks for children her age.

As for her own health, Sanchez is looking forward to this June, when it will be a year since she was declared cancer-free.

"I don't really feel like a survivor yet, but everything looks good so far," she said.

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