Chemotherapy 'won't harm the baby': Cancer treatment during pregnancy is safe, says study
07:03 GMT, 16 August 2012
Pregnant women who develop cancer can have chemotherapy without endangering their unborn child, say researchers.
A study suggests that women who received treatment for cancer during pregnancy had no greater risk of giving to children with birth defects or other health issues.
Hundreds of pregnant women diagnosed with cancer each year face the agonising decision of what to do next.
Pregnant women who develop cancer can have chemotherapy without endangering their unborn child, say researchers
Some even opt for an abortion, especially if they are in the early stages of pregnancy and the cancer is very aggressive, while others refuse treatment until after the baby is born.
But researchers in Germany say there is no need to interrupt the pregnancy in any way, delay treatment or use less powerful drugs because there is little evidence the baby will be affected.
In a study of more than 400 women from across Europe who were diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer while pregnant, almost half underwent chemotherapy during pregnancy.
The study assessed whether the newborn babies of the 197 treated women suffered any ill effects that could be attributable to the cancer drugs.
Babies whose mothers had undergone chemotherapy while pregnant had, on average, a lower birth weight than those whose mothers had not had chemotherapy, says a report in The Lancet Oncology journal.
There were few other noticeable differences between the groups.
Study assessed 400 women diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer
Babies exposed to chemotherapy while in the womb appeared to have no higher risk of birth defects, no lower scores of wellbeing at birth, no more frequent blood disorders or alopecia than those whose mothers did not receive chemotherapy while pregnant.
Around one in 2,000 pregnancies is affected by cancer, a rate that is increasing by 2.5 per cent a year as women have children later in life.
Professor Sibylle Loibl, of the German Breast Group which led the study, said 'If our findings are confirmed by other studies, breast cancer during pregnancy could be treated as it is in non-pregnant women without putting foetal and maternal outcomes at substantially increased risk.'
The number of chemotherapy cycles received during pregnancy did not appear to affect the babies' birth weight, leading the authors to suggest that the lower birth weight is not clinically meaningful.
Prof Loibl said 'In the general population, about 10-15 per cent of infants are born preterm, but in our study, 50 per cent of women with breast cancer delivered preterm, with 23 per cent delivering before the 35th week of gestation.
'More complications were reported in the group of infants exposed to chemotherapy than in the group not exposed to chemotherapy.
'However, most complications were reported in babies who were delivered prematurely, irrespective of exposure to chemotherapy.
'Our findings emphasise the importance of prioritising a full-term delivery in women who undergo chemotherapy while pregnant.'
Professor Loibl added 'Illness and mortality in newborn babies is directly related to gestational age at delivery. This is an important clinical message because the decision to deliver the foetus preterm is often taken without medical indication.
'Our work suggests that treating patients with breast cancer while pregnant is possible, and there is no need to interrupt the pregnancy or receive inferior therapy.'
A collection of studies published earlier this year concluded that chemotherapy after the first trimester (12 weeks) does not harm the unborn child.