Cancer During Pregnancy on the Rise
By Catherine Donaldson-Evans Mar 8th 2011
Bender, 32, is close to the March 17 due date for her first baby, a daughter, who seems to be healthy and doing well from ultrasound screenings. But she also is trying to save her life with cancer treatments while she does what’s best for her unborn child.
She was only 11 weeks into the pregnancy when she got the terrible news: A small lump in her breast was determined to be a malignant tumor, according to Today.com, the website for the “Today” show.
“We were devastated,” Bender, a city planner, told the site. “I went through every form of emotion. I was yelling in the car, ‘No, no, no!'”
Bender was told she had Stage II breast cancer, one of about 3,500 pregnant women in the U.S. diagnosed with some form of cancer every year. But unlike expectant moms of previous generations who found themselves in the same situation, she wasn’t advised to end the pregnancy early or avoid treatment for herself until after the baby was born.
Watch Bender on the ‘Today’ show. Article continues below.
Instead, she was told to fight cancer with every resource she had available. In that vein, she decided to undergo both chemotherapy and surgery, as counterintuitive as that felt.
“I had given up caffeine, I was trying to eat really organic food and then I was going to do chemo?” she said. “It’s so psychologically hard to reconcile putting poison in your body.”
But she did it anyway, because she wanted her baby to have a mother. And she wanted to live.
“I was very committed to this pregnancy,” Bender said.
Her husband Ryan, a software engineer, was surprised by the motherly feelings that flared up in his wife.
“She has this strong maternal instinct that I hadn’t even seen until now,” he told Today.com.
Cancer currently befalls about 1 in every 1,000 pregnant women, according to the site, in part because more are waiting until they’re older to have children. That increases their risk of developing the disease, especially breast cancer.
Dr. Kimberly E. Resnick, a gynecological oncologist at University Hospitals Case Medical Center, says that more pregnant women are getting breast and even cervical cancer, but the trend toward waiting to have children is only part of the story.
“Some of it probably stems from women delaying childbearing until after they’re 35,” she told AOL Health. “But women are under more surveillance when they’re pregnant as well. They’re under a little bit more scrutiny … and we can have increased detection.”
She stressed that breast and other forms of cancer are still relatively rare during pregnancy, even in older expectant mothers. And other types of cancer, including melanoma, can also pop up.
The trend reflects a more general increase in all forms of the disease, she explained.
“Overall, it seems like we’re seeing higher rates of cancer than we used to,” said Resnick.
Research out of Sweden from 2009 found that the rate of cancer in pregnancy more than doubled from 1963 and 2002. Scientists estimate that 7 to 15 percent of breast cancers in pre-menopausal women develop in those who are pregnant, according to Today.com.
Resnick said unborn children of moms being treated for cancer are generally just fine, even after the women undergo chemo and surgery.
“The babies typically do well, and for the most part, the outcomes are the same,” she told AOL Health. “We have to treat the mom the same as if she wasn’t pregnant. We know chemotherapy and surgery are quite safe in pregnancy. We recommend that the women pursue as aggressive a treatment as they can.”
That’s exactly what Bender is doing, for herself, her husband and her daughter.
“I don’t have control over how long I live,” she said through tears. “But I do have control over how I live now, and having children is such an important part of that.”