Updated: Oct 24
Each year roughly 264,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC). While pregnancy-related breast cancer is rare, John Hopkins Medicine it is the most common form of cancer affecting 1 in 3000 pregnant women each year. This includes any breast cancer that is found during pregnancy, while breastfeeding, or within a year following delivery of a baby.
Due to the many changes in the breast during pregnancy and breastfeeding, the disease can be difficult to diagnose.
Because of this, pregnancy-related breast tumors tend to be larger and of a higher stage than those in non-pregnant women. However, many of the diagnostic procedures and treatments are safe for pregnant women and their babies.
Here are some warning signs of breast cancer:
New lump in the breast or underarm.
Thickening or swelling of part of the breast.
Irritation or dimpling of breast skin.
Redness or flaky skin in the nipple area or the breast.
Pulling in of the nipple or pain in the nipple area.
Nipple discharge other than breast milk, including blood.
Any change in the size or the shape of the breast.
Pain in any area of the breast.
Breast Cancer and Pregnancy
When treating a pregnant woman with breast cancer, the goal is the same: cure the cancer if possible, or to control it and keep it from spreading if it can’t be cured. However, there is an extra concern of protecting a growing fetus that may make treatment more complicated.
According to the American Cancer Society, pregnant women can safely get treatment for breast cancer, although the types of treatment used and the timing of treatment might be affected by the pregnancy. Treatment recommendations will depend on:
The size of the tumor
Where the tumor is located
If the cancer has spread and if so, how far
How far along you are in the pregnancy
Your overall health
Your personal preferences
It is generally safe to have surgery for breast cancer while you’re pregnant.
The American Cancer Society says that chemotherapy seems to be safe for the baby if given in the second or third trimester of pregnancy, but it isn’t safe in the first trimester.
Other breast cancer treatments, such as hormone therapy, targeted therapy, and radiation therapy, are more likely to harm the baby and are not usually given until after delivery.
Studies have not shown that the treatment delays needed during pregnancy have an effect on breast cancer outcome. Unfortunately this is a difficult area to study.
There are no reports showing that breast cancer itself can harm the baby. However, most doctors recommend that women who have just had babies and are about to be treated for breast cancer should stop (or never start) breastfeeding. Many chemo, hormone, and targeted therapy drugs can enter breast milk and be passed on to the baby.
Regular screening can find the cancer early, which makes it easier to treat. Although every screening test has benefits and risks, it's important to talk to your doctor before getting any screening test.
Some tests may offer false positive test results, which is when a doctor sees something that looks like cancer but is not. This can lead to more tests, which can be expensive, time-consuming, and potentially lead to high levels of anxiety, according to
the United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF). USPSTF is an organization of doctors and disease experts who look at research on the best way to prevent diseases or find them early. Here are some common screening tests used to detect breast cancer.
A mammogram is an X-ray of the breast. For many women, mammograms are the best way to find breast cancer early. This can often detect breast cancer before it is big enough to feel or cause symptoms. Regular mammograms can lower the risk of dying from breast cancer and
USPSTF states that this is the best way, most effective way to detect breast cancer.
Find a mammogram testing facility here.
Breast Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)
A breast MRI uses magnets and radio waves to take pictures of the breast. The Breast MRI is used along with mammograms to screen women who are at high risk for getting breast cancer.
Sometimes the breast MRIs may appear abnormal even when there is no cancer so they are not commonly used for women at average risk.
You can schedule a procedure at your local breast imaging center.
Clinical Breast Exam
A clinical breast exam is an examination by a doctor or nurse, who uses their hands to feel for lumps or other changes.
This can be done during a general physical exam.
Place a pillow under your right shoulder and your right arm behind your head. Using your left hand, move the pads of your fingers around your right breast gently covering the entire breast area and armpit. Use light, medium, and firm pressure. Squeeze the nipple to check for discharge and lumps.
Repeat for the left.
Being familiar with how your breasts look and feel can help you notice symptoms such as lumps, pain, or changes in size that may be of concern.
If you have any signs or symptoms that worry you, be sure to see your doctor right away.