I’m thinking about the Grey’s Anatomy episode where a pregnant woman is admitted to the hospital with cancer. She is given the dreadful choice that has been given to most pregnant cancer patients: Delay treatment until delivery, which means risking the mother’s life, or start treatment during pregnant and most likely harm the baby. If I remember correctly, the woman on the show decided abort, but then changed her mind and decided to sacrifice herself for the sake of carrying her baby to term.
But according to this incredible article, there is a third choice. The University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, has pioneered the once controversial treatment of pregnant breast cancer patients since 1989. Last year they “formed the basis of the first national guidelines for the treatment of pregnant women with breast cancer… [which says that] chemotherapy can be safely administered beginning in the second trimester. Radiation shouldn’t be given until after birth.”
There is obviously a fear that chemotherapy will harm a developing fetus, and the main concern of mothers who come to M.D. Anderson’s is for their babies, rather than themselves. Cancer drugs have caused abnormalities in babies exposed during the first trimester, before doctor and patient knew of the pregnancy, the most formative period for organ development.
“But there wasn’t much difference in the rate of abnormalities in babies exposed to chemotherapy during the second trimester and the rate in babies never exposed. The risk was just under 20 percent when chemotherapy was given in the first trimester, but less than 1.5 percent when given in the second trimester and when not given at all.”
In the past 18 years, 68 breast cancer patients at M.D. Anderson have given birth, and all the babies are developing normally except for one born with Down syndrome, a condition doctors say was unrelated to the chemotherapy program.
“Of course, it’s too early to pronounce the treatment of pregnant cancer patients completely risk-free… But so far, with the eldest child born in the program now 18, the news is only good.” Says Dr. Theriault, the leader of M.D. Anderson’s program, “It’s like having a lot of grandchildren. There’s a happy feeling you get, knowing you were able to help the moms have normal kids.”