Pregnancy and Cancer: Two Lives at Risk

It's challenging enough for a woman to face breast cancer. But imagine battling the disease when you're pregnant.

While it's rare, doctors say the numbers are growing as more women delay childbearing until their 30s and 40s, when the risk of cancer grows.

But even a younger woman can find herself struggling for life -- both her own and her unborn child's.

'Me or the Baby'

Seven months ago, 26-year-old Linda Sanchez got the best and the worst of news. She was told she was pregnant with her first child and within days, she was also told she had breast cancer.

"You just don't know what to think about, what to focus on," Sanchez said of her situation.

A doctor then presented Sanchez with an excruciating choice. She could either start chemotherapy and risk severe birth defects to her baby or delay treatment and risk losing her life.

"My doctor basically said it was me or the baby," she said.

The message was that Sanchez should consider having an abortion. It's the same advice many other women in this situation receive.

Hope for Both Lives

But pioneering research at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center has shown there's a better way -- that it's now possible to treat a woman's cancer without harming her unborn child.

"Yes, chemotherapy is toxic. But what we have found is that when given in the second or third trimesters it appears to be safe," Dr. Jennifer Litton, breast oncologist at the M.D. Anderson Cancer center, said.

A specific "regimen" of chemotherapy used for pregnant cancer patients has enabled the births of dozens of healthy babies.

Amazingly, even when the chemotherapy can make a woman bald, her baby can be born with a full head of hair.

"[The] placenta is protecting the baby. That baby is not getting the same side effects as the mother," Litton said.

Looking Forward

Over the next several months Linda had a series of chemotherapy sessions. And while she still needs more treatments and surgery after she gives birth, her tumor has already shrunk 60 percent.

As for her pregnancy, her doctors say everything is going well.

"Oh, she's doing great. She's meeting all the milestones of any normal pregnancy," Dr. Mildred Ramirez of the University of Texas Medical School in Houston, said.

Sanchez has already named her unborn daughter Isabella.

"I just hope she's doing OK," she said.

And by all indications Isabella is doing fine.

"I'm just excited. I can't wait to see her. I can't wait at all," Sanchez said.

Isabella is due right around Thanksgiving.

For a comprehensive listing of Medicine on the Cutting Edge reports with John McKenzie, click here.

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