With October being Breast Cancer Awareness Month, it’s the perfect time to acknowledge that breast cancer affects 1 in 8 women at some point in their lives. This can include during pregnancy or the breastfeeding journey, so let’s review what this could mean for you.
Breast cancer during pregnancy and postpartum
We call breast cancer that is diagnosed while pregnant or within the 12 months after giving birth “pregnancy-associated breast cancer.” Luckily, this is relatively uncommon, affecting 1 in 3,000 birthing people annually.
Symptoms are often similar to what those whose breast cancer is diagnosed outside of pregnancy experience, which usually presents as a breast mass, new nipple retraction, or skin changes.
At your initial prenatal visit, a breast exam should be done to establish your baseline breast health. If any concerns are found, imaging via a breast ultrasound or mammogram can be done. If there is enough concern, your doctor can perform a fine needle aspiration where a small sample of cells is sent to a pathologist to examine under the microscope and aid in diagnosis.
Unfortunately, most people who are diagnosed with breast cancer while pregnant tend to be at an advanced stage. It will be important to rule out that the cancer has spread to other parts of the body before figuring out the best treatment.
Treatment depends on the type and stage of cancer as well as how far along in pregnancy you are. The key is to not delay treatment, so if you are close to your due date when diagnosed, it may mean moving up your delivery either by an induction of labor or cesarean section.
Options for treatment include surgical removal of the mass or entire breast, lymph node dissection, chemotherapy, hormone therapy, radiation, or a combination of more than one of these. Monitoring your baby’s growth is important as some of these treatments can potentially affect it, but this is not a reason to delay your cancer therapy.
Breastfeeding through breast cancer
When it comes to breastfeeding and a cancer diagnosis, this can be done as long as ongoing chemotherapy is NOT being administered. Those who have had one breast removed can nurse from the remaining breast and supplement with donor milk or formula, as needed. Having a lactation consultant who has helped new parents affected by breast cancer can be enormously helpful.
A certain type of breast cancer, called inflammatory breast cancer, can mimic mastitis in that it can cause the breast to look red and inflamed. Inflammatory breast cancer should be suspected anytime mastitis does not respond to antibiotics or seems atypical. This kind of cancer can be aggressive and requires early diagnosis and treatment.
- Breast cancer that is diagnosed while pregnant or within the 12 months after giving birth is called “pregnancy-associated breast cancer.”
- Pregnancy-associated breast cancer affects 1 in 3,000 pregnant people annually.
- Treatment options depend partially on how far along you are in the pregnancy.
- Breast cancer does not have to be the end of your breastfeeding journey.