If you're currently being treated for any form of cancer, be cautioned: There are two very important reasons to avoid pregnancy. First, pregnancy puts a strain on an expectant mother's body by reducing blood circulation and in part depriving her of the nutrients available to her. Second, both a developing fetus and the cancer are composed of swiftly dividing immature cells. Radiation, chemotherapy and other medicines used to treat cancer are designed to destroy rapidly dividing cells. So it's possible that these therapies could be harmful to an unborn fetus, possibly causing miscarriage, birth defects or stillbirth.
For these reasons, most oncologists urge women of childbearing age who are being treated for cancer to practice strict birth control. Pregnancy is generally discouraged until you've had a disease-free interval of at least two years after initial treatment. Pregnancy, however, may not be possible after radiation therapy for ovarian cancer, which often causes premature menopause. There is no increase in birth defects in women who remain fertile after being treated for most forms of cancer. For this reason, consult your oncologist about your particular circumstances.
If you are pregnant when first diagnosed with cancer, you may be advised to terminate the pregnancy, since delaying therapy in the hope you'll be able to carry a normal baby to term could threaten your prospects for long-term survival, or reduce your chances of recovery.
If an abortion is unacceptable to you, there's a medical database that may have crucial information for you and your doctor. It's called the Registry of Pregnancies Exposed to Chemotherapeutic Agents and was launched in 1984 by Dr. John J. Mulvihill, then the director of clinical genetics at the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The database, operated by the University of Pittsburgh, has an extensive compilation of individual cases plus medical data on the known effects of various cancer drugs during specific stages of pregnancy. Doctors, genetic counselors and women can learn what happened to previous pregnant cancer patients who used those drugs and plan accordingly.
You or your doctor can contact this registry at the Department of Human Genetics, A300 Crabtree Hall, GSPH, Pittsburgh, PA 15261; phone, 412-624-3018.
Other resources for women with cancer:
- The American Cancer Society, 1599 Clifton Road, N.E., Atlanta, GA 30329; 1-800-227-2345; offers free publications on cancer-related sexuality issues.
- Society for Reproductive Medicine, 1209 Montgomery Hwy., Birmingham, AL 35216; phone 205-978-5000. A nonprofit group formed to advance knowledge of reproductive medicine and the study of reproductive disorders.
- The National Cancer Institute. Has detailed information on various forms of cancer, clinical trials and other cancer-related topics. Call 1-800-422-6237 for specifics.