Chemo During Pregnancy: Possible? Health Risks & Side Effects?


Chemo in pregnancy? Yes, it can be done, study says. It’s an undeniable trend: across the world, a rising number of women today are choosing to delay pregnancy, even in the once-traditional societies of East, South and West Asia.

For the most part, the decision is a good one: it grants women the time, energy and power to build their careers and finances, and prepare for a more financially and emotionally stable family.

Many extraordinary advances in medicine, too, have made it easier for women to get pregnant and have a safe pregnancy later in life. But women of advanced maternal age still have a higher risk for difficult pregnancies and labor, miscarriage, placenta problems, and high blood pressure and diabetes, than younger women.

They also have a higher risk for cancer.

For many years, pregnant women, as well as their families and doctors, have struggled with the dilemma: to undergo chemotherapy or not?







On one hand, most drugs—be they chemotherapy drugs or simple headache remedies—can raise the chance of a baby being born with defects when these are taken by pregnant women in the first trimester or 12 weeks of pregnancy, when the baby’s organs are still forming.

How would fetuses fare against the onslaught of toxic cancer drugs and radiation treatments? Was it even safe to continue pregnancy when a woman had cancer?

And while doctors in the last decade or so have been more willing to use chemotherapy after the first trimester, many still worry that the child’s brain and heart could suffer damage.

On the other hand, putting off the treatment could allow the cancer to spread.

Right now, only about one in 1,000 pregnant women face this dilemma. But numbers are bound to climb, as more women are delaying having children until they’re older, when they also face a higher cancer risk.

Chemo: yes, it’s possible
Now comes reassuring news from a new, groundbreaking study: pregnant women with cancer need worry no more about how chemotherapy will affect their babies.

While it still stands that chemotherapy shouldn’t be given during the first trimester, a new study published in the journal Lancet Oncology on Feb. 10 suggests that mothers who undergo cancer drug treatment during pregnancy don’t appear to have babies that suffer from physical or mental problems.

In the Belgian-led study, researchers followed the progress of 70 children in Europe who were exposed to chemotherapy while they were in the womb and found that the treatment had not harmed their development.

Researchers found that children born to women undergoing cancer drug treatment show normal results in tests on their hearts, IQ and general health—done at birth, at 18 months, and at either five, eight, nine, 11, 14 or 18 years.

In thinking and reasoning capacity, these “cancer-treatment-exposed” children were similar to other children, researchers said. In growth, behavior, hearing and general health, the children did as well as any others, too. Their heart size and function was also found to be normal.

Began in 2005, the study recruited some children retrospectively and following others from birth. The children ranged in age from 18 months to 18 years.

Writing in Lancet Oncology, the researchers said, “Fetal exposure to chemotherapy was not associated with increased central nervous system, cardiac or auditory morbidity, or with impairments to general health and growth compared with the general population.”

“Many (doctors) aren’t keen to give chemotherapy to pregnant women and may even recommend termination,” the study’s lead author, Dr. Frederic Amant of the Leuven Cancer Institute in Belgium, tells the Associated Press.