Soon after being diagnosed with breast cancer, Mary Harris discovered that she was pregnant. She felt compelled to make a difficult choice: delay powerful cancer therapies so as to avoid harming the baby, or terminate the pregnancy and proceed with treatment. Ultimately, a small but significant study offered an alternative — and hope.
Published in The New England Journal of Medicine, the study found that pregnant women can undergo cancer therapies during the second and third trimester without risking the health of a fetus. The study examined 129 children born to mothers who had undergone cancer therapy during pregnancy, and a similar number of children born to mothers without cancer. Researchers found normal development of heart and brain function in the first group. They also discovered that mental development scores improved with every week that a child spent in the womb. “Currently women who develop cancer and require treatment have preterm delivery so that treatment can start,” said lead author Professor Frédéric Amant, a gynecological oncologist at University Hospitals Leueven in Belgium. “These results show that preterm delivery—but not cancer treatment—is associated with worse outcomes. This suggests that we should no longer induce preterm delivery and that it is safe to start cancer treatment while a woman is pregnant, except during the first trimester.”
Amant did warn that the study has substantial limitations. “Our data include many types of chemotherapy, but we cannot guarantee that all types of chemotherapy are safe,” he said. “We need to look at larger numbers of children and larger numbers exposed to each drug in order to be able to document the potential effects of individual drugs.” Researchers will also follow its subjects until they are 18 years of age, in order to determine long-term effects of cancer therapies that were included in the study.
Harris elected to undergo surgery, and then chemotherapy in the third trimester. In 2014, she gave birth to a healthy baby girl named Stella.
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