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Fearing complications for both mother and child, chemotherapy for years was not an option for pregnant women with breast cancer. However, contrary to widely-held beliefs, new data from researchers at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center has revealed that pregnant women treated with chemotherapy for breast cancer do at least as well as non-pregnant women.
According to an October article in TIME magazine, researchers in the study followed 75 pregnant women treated for breast cancer at MD Anderson between 1989 and 2008 and compared them to 150 non-pregnant breast cancer patients of the same age and at the same cancer stage. Pregnant women had a five-year, disease-free survival rate of 74 percent compared with 56 percent in non-pregnant women. Even overall survival rates for pregnant women were higher.
These results contradict earlier studies showing that outcomes were worse for pregnant women treated for breast cancer. But according to Jennifer Litton, an assistant professor in MD Anderson’s Department of Breast Medical Oncology, that was likely due to those women receiving inadequate doses or being advised to postpone treatment until after delivery. Litton’s findings were reported at the 2010 Breast Cancer Symposium.
While experts are unsure what’s behind the numbers, the takeaway is that women treated while pregnant do well. In 1992, another MD Anderson professor began studying the effects of chemotherapy on pregnant patients and eventually concluded that the drugs are safe for mother and child. Today, pregnant patients are supposed to receive the same drugs as non-pregnant patients in the same proportional doses according to weight. The caveat? Even if cancer is detected in early pregnancy, women are advised to put off chemotherapy until the second trimester to minimize the risk of birth defects.
As for the babies, data shows they are doing well and at no greater risk of complications than the general population.
For more information about chemotherapy as a breast cancer treatment for pregnant women, visit the National Cancer Institute website. Additional information is also available at Science Daily.
November 12, 2010