Pregnant, With Cancer: Doctors Rethink Treatment
Risk of Chemotherapy May Be Lower Than
Once Feared; The Pressure to Terminate
By AMY DOCKSER MARCUS
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
May 18, 2004; Page D1
Last December, Vernetta Rolle Smith started chemotherapy
to treat breast cancer. But Ms. Smith, a 28-year-old math teacher
from Houston, isn't an ordinary cancer patient: She was 24 weeks
pregnant at the time.
For years, pregnant women diagnosed with cancer
have faced a stark and painful choice: terminate their pregnancy
-- as Ms. Smith's doctor originally suggested that she consider
-- or risk their babies and their
Women who refused to terminate have had a hard
time even finding a doctor
to treat them. The worry is that the large doses of chemotherapy
treatments often needed might severely damage the unborn child.
also been a fear that pregnancy itself -- which increases hormone
and blood volume and is undeniably stressful to the body -- might
woman's chances of survival.
But an important change in thinking is emerging
among oncologists. Many are
starting to argue that chemotherapy and other treatments can be
administered in ways that may not harm the mother's prognosis or
fetus, especially if given after the first trimester. At the same
more people survive cancer and can expect to be alive years down
some pregnant women are deciding it's worth the risk of trying to
themselves and their babies. This, in turn, is generating more data
were previously available.
While cases of pregnant women coping with cancer
are rare, oncologists say
the numbers are growing as more women are delaying childbearing
30s and 40s when the likelihood of cancer is higher. Estimates range
anywhere from one in 1,000 pregnancies to one in 3,000. And these
faced with giving up what may be their last chance to have a child,
looking for alternatives.
Vernetta Rolle Smith of Houston, with her infant
A look at the rate of birth defects in babies
of 619 women who received
chemotherapy while pregnant.
With chemo exposure in the first trimester: 19%
When chemo is delayed until second or third trimester: 5.5%
Rate of birth defects in the general population: 5%
Source: University of Oklahoma Registry of
Pregnancies Exposed to
One of the key insights emerging from the growing
number of cases is that,
contrary to what was once believed, a woman's survival doesn't appear
improve if the pregnancy is terminated. Evidence also indicates
children exposed to chemotherapy in utero, the risks of stillbirth,
defects, low birth weight and other complications are lower than
feared. On average, these risks are higher than in the general population,
but research suggests that when chemo is delayed until after the
trimester, the risks fall considerably.
In Ms. Smith's case, she turned to a program at
M.D. Anderson Cancer Center
in Houston after learning the lump in her breast was malignant.
there run a registry tracking what happens to pregnant women with
cancer who go through treatment. Ms. Smith began treatment in her
trimester, and her son, Paul, was born in March with no apparent
complications. Her treatment is continuing.
Not all oncologists think it is worth taking the
risk -- either to the
mother or the baby -- of undergoing cancer treatment while pregnant.
Virtually no long-term data are available on how babies of cancer-treatment
patients fare into adulthood. And pregnancy certainly doesn't make
treatment any easier.
"It's like saying I'm going to get hit by
a car and recover from it at the
same time that I have cancer treatment," says Jeanne Petrek,
the surgical program at the Lauder Breast Center of New York's Memorial
Sloan-Kettering Hospital. Given that there are still unanswered
about the effects of chemotherapy, she says she still recommends
consider terminating a pregnancy.
In a University of Oklahoma registry of 619 pregnant
women who had
chemotherapy, director John J. Mulvihill says his analysis shows
of birth defects when the drugs were given in the first trimester
compared with a 5% risk in the general population. But the risk
to 5.5% when drugs were given only in the second and third trimesters.
There are now at least four such registries tracking
the health outcomes of
pregnant women diagnosed with a variety of cancers, as well as children
exposed to chemotherapy drugs in utero.
All chemotherapy drugs are considered potentially
dangerous to a fetus. The
drugs have caused defects in animal studies, but no human trials
conducted. So oncologists have relied mainly on published reports
to try to determine which drugs are more harmful. For instance,
that are mainstays in treating particular cancers -- such as
cyclophosphamide, widely used to treat non-Hodgkins lymphoma, breast
ovarian cancer -- have caused eye abnormalities, absent toes and
palate in children exposed during the first trimester.
Elyce Cardonick, a maternal-fetal medicine specialist
who runs a database
of pregnant women with cancer based at Cooper University Hospital
Camden, N.J., says she advises using older drugs rather than the
agents because at least there is more evidence about their effects
children who get exposed during pregnancy.
Richard Theriault, who founded the M.D. Anderson
pregnancy registry, says
none of the 54 babies in his database has had birth defects, including
Smith's son. But it's not known if the long-term risks of chemotherapy
such as an increased susceptibility later in life to cancer, cardiac
problems and fertility problems -- could also affect children exposed
utero. Dr. Theriault's database is small and the oldest child is
14. In some of the other databases, the oldest child is even younger.
"The children are fine so far," says
Dr. Theriault, "but no one knows
New studies may start developing the data that
women need to make a more
informed choice about what to do, says Gideon Koren, director of
Motherisk program at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto,
advises pregnant and lactating women about drug exposure and runs
international registry of pregnant cancer patients. Dr. Koren says
study they did of 200 women diagnosed with breast cancer during
had surprising results. When matched by age, treatment, and stage
disease with nonpregnant women, the women's survival rates were
Dr. Koren says.
Oncologists say they try to ensure that a pregnant
woman's cancer treatment
remains as close as possible to what she would receive if she weren't
pregnant. Some changes are usually required, though. Radiation therapy,
where the patient receives beams of X-rays or other radiation, can
birth defects and mental retardation and is generally delayed until
delivery. But diagnostic scans such as mammograms, which involve
of radiation, have all been successfully used on pregnant cancer
and surgical procedures including mastectomies have been safely
The Question of Dosage
A debate remains over how much chemotherapy is
safe to give. "You do not
want them to be undertreated and get chemo-lite," says Dr.
puts the women at risk of recurrence." But Dr. Cardonick adds
enough is known about whether pregnant women need to get a different
of chemotherapy than women who are similar weights but not pregnant.
These sorts of uncertainties are what can make
the choice so overwhelming.
"I felt guilty every time I did chemo,"
says Juliet Jones, 34, of
Tarrytown, N.Y., who was diagnosed in 2002 with inflammatory breast
an aggressive form of the disease, when she was 23 weeks pregnant.
time she finished a treatment, she would wait anxiously, making
could still feel the baby moving. Her 17-month-old daughter is healthy
Ms. Jones is currently considered disease-free, but she says she
worries about both of their futures. "It is so tough to go
through the most
horrible thing that has ever happened to me," she says, "and
have it be
completely intertwined with the most wonderful thing that has ever
Pregnancy and Cancer
The following Web sites offer information and
resources about fertility
issues and cancer:
Information involving all aspects of fertility issues arising from
treatment before, after and during pregnancy
Runs an international registry tracking pregnant women with cancer,
pregnant and lactating women about drug exposures
Cancer Institute (www.cancer.gov)
Information about specific cancer treatments while pregnant
With Cancer (www.pregnantwithcancer.org, 1-800-743-6724
Support group, information about all aspects of being pregnant with
Cancer and Childbirth Registry (Contact: For database:
appointments: 856-342-2491) Run by Elyce Cardonick at Cooper Health,
tracking the outcomes of
pregnancies of women with cancer all over the country
Health Outcomes of Pregnancy Database at M.D.
713-792-4124) Database currently comprises women diagnosed with
breast cancer while
Registry of Pregancies Exposed to Chemotherapeutic
Run out of the University of Oklahoma, the database includes 619
primarily from published reports, including women with diseases
cancer who were also exposed to chemo drugs while pregnant
Write to Amy Dockser Marcus at firstname.lastname@example.org
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