Pregnancy is typically a time filled with uncertainty, especially if it’s your first child. If you have cancer and are planning to become pregnant, your anxiety might be even more heightened by fears for your safety and the safety of your unborn child. However, it’s possible to successfully navigate the risks and potential complications with some careful planning.
“While cancer can make pregnancy more difficult in some cases,” said Michael J. Paglia, M.D., PhD, director of Maternal Fetal Medicine at Geisinger Health System, “it is generally safe if you follow the guidelines and advice shared by your obstetrician and oncologist.”
Here are several steps you should take if you plan to become pregnant after cancer:
Talk to your doctor
If you are planning to become pregnant after cancer treatment, you should talk to your doctor as soon as possible about your decision. Your doctor will be the best resource to guide you through a treatment plan that offers the best chance for a successful post-cancer pregnancy.
There will be many medical questions and issues that you will need to navigate before, during and after your treatment. Be prepared to ask the following questions:
- Will cancer treatment affect my ability to become pregnant?
- How long should I wait to become pregnant after my cancer treatment?
- Will pregnancy increase my chances of recurrence?
- Should I seek out an obstetrician who has experience with cancer patients?
- Will there be any potential complications with my pregnancy or delivery?
Determine the optimal waiting period
While there is no single, standard time period for waiting to get pregnant after cancer treatment, most doctors recommend waiting at least six months after finishing chemotherapy. Chemotherapy can damage a woman’s eggs permanently.
“Waiting as long as two to five years may be your best option since many cancers may recur shortly after the initial cancer treatment,” said Dr. Paglia. “This extended waiting period reduces the risk that a woman’s cancer will return while she is pregnant.”
Cancer treatment during pregnancy can be especially complicated, so it’s better to avoid dealing with both pregnancy and cancer at the same time.
Understand the potential risks
Some cancer treatments can increase the risk for complications during pregnancy.
“Radiation treatment may affect the blood supply to the uterus, making complications such as low birth weight, premature birth and miscarriage more likely,” said Dr. Paglia. “Certain surgical procedures, especially those involving the cervix, may also increase a woman’s changes for a miscarriage.”
Pregnancy does not make it more likely for your cancer to recur. However, hormones that increase during pregnancy have been linked to an increase in the growth of breast cancer cells.
A woman who has survived cancer is not more likely to have children who develop cancer, unless she had a hereditary cancer. Hereditary cancers can be passed from mother to child. A genetic counselor can help you understand these risks if you have a hereditary cancer.
Make a plan to protect your fertility
Cancer treatments such as radiation and surgery can negatively impact fertility. However, your doctor can help you plan around these potential complications. Common strategies to help women preserve their fertility during cancer include:
- Freezing fertilized eggs (embryo cryopreservation)
- Freezing unfertilized eggs (oocyte cryopreservation)
- Modification of surgery and radiation treatments to avoid reproductive organ damage
“Cancer is not necessarily the end of a woman’s fertility,” said Dr. Paglia. “Many women raise happy and healthy families after cancer, so it’s important to keep a hopeful eye on your life after treatment.”