Pregnancy No Hindrance to Breast Cancer Treatment, Study Says

The spring of 2007 will forever stand out in the mind of 28-year-old Linda Sanchez of Laredo, Texas.

That was when she found out she was pregnant. But it was also in April 2007 that she learned she had breast cancer.

"It definitely was not expected," Sanchez recalled. "It was scary -- it was very, very scary, actually."

She had noticed the lump in her breast herself, and by the time a doctor examined it, it had developed into stage 2 breast cancer. To delay treatment would put her life at risk. But doctors at the time told her that to go forward with chemotherapy could pose a health threat for the baby growing inside her.

"My gynecologist at the time, she told me that I was not going to be able to keep the baby," she said.

Sanchez is not alone. Dr. George Perkins, an associate professor in the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center's Department of Radiation Oncology, said a growing number of women face a breast cancer diagnosis while pregnant.

"In the midst of this joyous occasion is the somber news that there might not be hope for them," he said. "Usually ... they have been told that the only way they can receive treatment is through the termination of their pregnancy."

But mounting evidence suggests that women in this situation do not necessarily have to decide between their own health and their baby's survival. The latest study to suggest this, which Perkins co-authored, was published today in the current issue of the journal Cancer.

Perkins, lead study author Dr. Beth Beadle and colleagues at M.D. Anderson studied 652 breast cancer patients. What they found was that there was no difference in the odds of surviving 10 years -- widely considered as the point at which a woman can be considered cured of breast cancer -- between the women who were not pregnant during or slightly before their diagnosis and those who were.

The primary difference in treatment, Perkins said, was that pregnant women should not undergo chemotherapy during the first trimester, as this is the time when the baby's organs are forming and they are particularly vulnerable. But past studies have shown that when chemo begins in the second or third trimester, the children that are born are just as healthy as babies born to mothers without breast cancer -- and their mothers have the same chance of survival as their breast cancer-free counterparts.

Perkins said that this is good news for those women who find themselves in a situation similar to Sanchez's.

"The overall outcome of the newborn child, as well as the mother, can be taken into account [during treatment]," he said.

'Minimal Harm to Baby' From Chemo Later in Pregnancy

Dr. Eva Singletary, associate director of M.D. Anderson's Nellie B. Connally Breast Center, said in an interview with ABC News' OnCall+ Breast Cancer resource site that it is true that women who are further along in their pregnancies can take advantage of chemotherapy.

"In the second and third trimester, we can use chemotherapy very successfully with minimal harm to the baby," Singletary said.

But, she added, if a woman already has a breast cancer diagnosis, it is still wise for her to avoid getting pregnant because of how it could possibly complicate treatment.

"[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.

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