By Chris Stallman, Certified Genetic Counselor at MotherToBaby Arizona

A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine who is in her second trimester of pregnancy , called me in a panic. Due to her recent medical history, it was recommended that she get an MRI in addition to her yearly mammogram as a way to screen for breast cancer. She, like many women who have the same question, was relieved and grateful to get this information. She then asked, “do women get diagnosed with cancer in pregnancy? Can they be treated?”

Yes, cancer occurs in about one in a thousand pregnancies every year. The most commonly diagnosed cancers in pregnancy are breast, cervical, Hodgkin’s disease, malignant melanoma, and leukemias. It can be tricky to diagnose cancer during pregnancy because common cancer symptoms such as fatigue, changes in the breasts, bloating, headaches, rectal bleeding, blotchy skin, and achy joints can also be symptoms of pregnancy.

Cancer can be diagnosed in different ways, including physical exams, biopsies, blood tests, ultrasounds and pap smears – all of which are used in pregnancy. But what about other tests?

  • X-rays can be used to diagnose cancer during pregnancy. The level of radiation used during an x-ray is too low to cause any known harm to the developing baby. When possible, women can use a lead shield that covers the abdomen during x-rays.
  • Computed tomography (CT or CAT) scans of the head or chest do not directly expose the developing baby to radiation. CT scans of the abdomen or pelvis can be done in pregnancy if absolutely necessary.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) does not use radiation and can be used in pregnancy.

Once diagnosed, the next thing to consider are various treatment options. Cancer can be successfully treated during pregnancy, but there are some important things to think about such as the size and location of the tumor, if the cancer has spread to other body parts, how far along you are in the pregnancy, and any other health conditions you may have.

  • Many medications used for cancer treatment (chemotherapeutic agents) are usually not given in the first trimester of pregnancy, because that’s when a lot of the baby’s development is happening. However, it’s possible to use them in the second or third trimesters. This can vary based on many factors, including the medication itself.
  • Surgical procedures (including using anesthesia) can usually be done during pregnancy.
  • For treatments such as radiation, hormone therapy, and targeted therapies, it’s often suggested to wait until after the baby is born.
  • Depending on the exact treatments and medications, breastfeeding may or may not be recommended.

Thankfully, my friend’s MRI is normal at this time. She was reminded to watch for any changes in her breasts and keeping an eye on any symptoms. Remember, whether you are pregnant or not, it’s always best to report any concerns to your healthcare provider as soon as possible. This way you can be properly evaluated, and treated if necessary, because most of the time a healthier mom leads to a healthier baby.

Chris Stallman is a certified genetic counselor based in Tucson, Arizona and proud mother of three. She currently works for The University of Arizona as a Teratogen Information Specialist at MotherToBaby Arizona, formerly known as the Arizona Pregnancy Riskline. Chris is also the host of the The MotherToBaby Podcast where she answers callers’ questions and interviews other experts on topics related to exposures, like medications and more, during pregnancy and breastfeeding. Her counseling experience includes prenatal and cardiac genetics. She has also served as MotherToBaby’s Education Committee Co-chair.

About MotherToBaby 

MotherToBabyis a service of the Organization of Teratology Information Specialists (OTIS), suggested resources by many agencies including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). If you have questions about exposures during pregnancy and breastfeeding, please call MotherToBaby toll-FREE at 866-626-6847 or try out MotherToBaby’s new text information service by texting questions to (855) 999-3525. You can also visit MotherToBaby.org to browse a library of fact sheets about dozens of viruses, medications, vaccines, alcohol, diseases, or other exposures during pregnancy and breastfeeding or connect with all of our resources by downloading the new MotherToBaby free app, available on Android and iOS markets. Also, make sure to subscribe to The MotherToBaby Podcast available on iTunes, Google Play Music, Spotify and podcatchers everywhere.