Science/Tech

Don’t Worry, Your Baby Is Safe If You Get Cancer While Pregnant: Chemotherapy And Radiotherapy Pose No Risks

chemotherapy
Pregnant women undergoing chemotherapy need not fear; their unborn children are likely to be quite safe, according to new research. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

If you’re pregnant and are undergoing cancer treatment, there’s nothing to fear. New research shows that your baby will remain safe even under chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

While doctors may remain hesitant to provide pregnant women with chemotherapy due to the fear that it may have adverse effects on the child in the womb, new studies show promise that unborn babies are safe from any negative effects. The authors presented three studies at ESMO (European Society for Medical Oncology) 2014.

“When chemotherapy is administered after the first trimester of pregnancy, we cannot discern any problems in the children,” said lead author Dr. Frederic Amant, of KU Leuven and University Hospitals Leuven in Belgium, in a press release. “Fear about the risks of chemotherapy administration should not be a reason to terminate a pregnancy, delay cancer treatment for the mother, or to deliver a baby prematurely.”

Doctors have been cautious when administering cancer treatment to pregnant women because of the belief that, especially during the first trimester, the unborn baby could be harmed. Many times, cancer treatment is delayed until later in the pregnancy to improve outcomes, and to prevent birth defects, malnutrition, or anemia.

But Amant’s research team wanted to examine, for the first time, any potential long-term effects on babies exposed to cancer treatment. Were the babies normal once they had grown up? The first study examined 38 children who had been exposed to chemotherapy in the womb; the researchers tested their mental development as well as heart health. These children were then compared to 38 control subjects who hadn’t been exposed to chemotherapy at all, and found that the first group were just as normal as the second.

In the second study, Amant and the research team examined radiotherapy’s impact on 16 children and 10 adults who had fully grown up after exposure. Once again, their developmental, neuropsychological, behavioral, and general health were in the normal range, except for one, due to unrelated factors.

As the first paper done on the developmental effects of chemotherapy on children in utero, it holds a lot of weight for doctors in the industry. “This paper points to the very important issue of long-term safety of prenatal exposure to chemotherapy, and reinforces the notion that chemotherapy during gestation does not endanger the fetus and her or his subsequent development,” said Dr. Fedro Alessandro Peccatori, director of the Fertility & Procreation Unit at ESMO, who was not involved in the study, in the press release. “To further ameliorate neonatal outcome, a special effort should be made to prolong pregnancy duration, and stringent long-term follow-up should be pursued to confirm these findings. Meanwhile, specific measures to support prematurely delivered babies and their families should be implemented.”

Regardless, the researchers still emphasize the importance of avoiding unplanned pregnancies during cancer treatment, not because there might be pregnancy problems, but because it might interfere with treatment. “The core message from our results is that it is vital for doctors and patients to discuss contraception during cancer diagnosis and cancer treatment,” the researchers said.

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