Breast Cancer Treatment and Pregnancy (PDQ®)

Last modified: 2016-10-12
Last downloaded: 2016-12-05

   

General Information about Breast Cancer and Pregnancy

   

Breast cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the tissues of the breast.

Anatomy of the female breast. The nipple and areola are shown on the outside of the breast. The lymph nodes, lobes, lobules, ducts, and other parts of the inside of the breast are also shown.

Anatomy of the female breast. The nipple and areola are shown on the outside of the breast. The lymph nodes, lobes, lobules, ducts, and other parts of the inside of the breast are also shown.

The breast is made up of lobes and ducts. Each breast has 15 to 20 sections called lobes. Each lobe has many smaller sections called lobules. Lobules end in dozens of tiny bulbs that can make milk. The lobes, lobules, and bulbs are linked by thin tubes called ducts. Anatomy of the female breast. The nipple and areola are shown on the outside of the breast. The lymph nodes, lobes, lobules, ducts, and other parts of the inside of the breast are also shown.

Each breast also has blood vessels and lymph vessels. The lymph vessels carry an almost colorless fluid called lymph. Lymph vessels carry lymph between lymph nodes. Lymph nodes are small bean-shaped structures that are found throughout the body. They filter substances in lymph and help fight infection and disease. Clusters of lymph nodes are found near the breast in the axilla (under the arm), above the collarbone, and in the chest.

   

Sometimes breast cancer occurs in women who are pregnant or have just given birth.

Breast cancer occurs about once in every 3,000 pregnancies. It occurs most often between the ages of 32 and 38.

   

Signs of breast cancer include a lump or change in the breast.

These and other signs may be caused by breast cancer or by other conditions. Check with your doctor if you have any of the following:

  • A lump or thickening in or near the breast or in the underarm area.
  • A change in the size or shape of the breast.
  • A dimple or puckering in the skin of the breast.
  • A nipple turned inward into the breast.
  • Fluid, other than breast milk, from the nipple, especially if it's bloody.
  • Scaly, red, or swollen skin on the breast, nipple, or areola (the dark area of skin around the nipple).
  • Dimples in the breast that look like the skin of an orange, called peau d’orange.
   

It may be difficult to detect (find) breast cancer early in pregnant or nursing women.

The breasts usually get larger, tender, or lumpy in women who are pregnant, nursing, or have just given birth. This occurs because of normal hormone changes that take place during pregnancy. These changes can make small lumps difficult to detect. The breasts may also become denser. It is more difficult to detect breast cancer in women with dense breasts using mammography. Because these breast changes can delay diagnosis , breast cancer is often found at a later stage in these women.

   

Breast exams should be part of prenatal and postnatal care.

To detect breast cancer, pregnant and nursing women should examine their breasts themselves. Women should also receive clinical breast exams during their regular prenatal and postnatal check-ups. Talk to your doctor if you notice any changes in your breasts that you do not expect or that worry you.

   

Tests that examine the breasts are used to detect (find) and diagnose breast cancer.

The following tests and procedures may be used:

Mammography. The breast is pressed between two plates. X-rays are used to take pictures of breast tissue.

Mammography. The breast is pressed between two plates. X-rays are used to take pictures of breast tissue.

  • Physical exam and history: An exam of the body to check general signs of health, including checking for signs of disease, such as lumps or anything else that seems unusual. A history of the patient’s health habits and past illnesses and treatments will also be taken.
  • Clinical breast exam (CBE): An exam of the breast by a doctor or other health professional. The doctor will carefully feel the breasts and under the arms for lumps or anything else that seems unusual.
  • MRI (magnetic resonance imaging): A procedure that uses a magnet, radio waves, and a computer to make a series of detailed pictures of both breasts. This procedure is also called nuclear magnetic resonance imaging (NMRI).
  • Ultrasound exam: A procedure in which high-energy sound waves (ultrasound) are bounced off internal tissues or organs and make echoes. The echoes form a picture of body tissues called a sonogram. The picture can be printed to look at later.
  • Mammogram : An x-ray of the breast. A mammogram can be done with little risk to the unborn baby. Mammograms in pregnant women may appear negative even though cancer is present. Mammography. The breast is pressed between two plates. X-rays are used to take pictures of breast tissue.
  • Blood chemistry studies : A procedure in which a blood sample is checked to measure the amounts of certain substances released into the blood by organs and tissues in the body. An unusual (higher or lower than normal) amount of a substance can be a sign of disease.
  • Biopsy : The removal of cells or tissues so they can be viewed under a microscope by a pathologist to check for signs of cancer. If a lump in the breast is found, a biopsy may be done.

    There are four types of breast biopsies:

   

If cancer is found, tests are done to study the cancer cells.

Decisions about the best treatment are based on the results of these tests and the age of the unborn baby. The tests give information about:

  • How quickly the cancer may grow.
  • How likely it is that the cancer will spread to other parts of the body.
  • How well certain treatments might work.
  • How likely the cancer is to recur (come back).

Tests may include the following:

   

Certain factors affect prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options.

The prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options depend on the following:

  • The stage of the cancer (the size of the tumor and whether it is in the breast only or has spread to other parts of the body).
  • The type of breast cancer.
  • The age of the unborn baby.
  • Whether there are signs or symptoms.
  • The patient’s general health.

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Stages of Breast Cancer

   

After breast cancer has been diagnosed, tests are done to find out if cancer cells have spread within the breast or to other parts of the body.

The process used to find out if the cancer has spread within the breast or to other parts of the body is called staging. The information gathered from the staging process determines the stage of the disease. It is important to know the stage in order to plan treatment.

Some procedures may expose the unborn baby to harmful radiation or dyes. These procedures are done only if absolutely necessary. Certain actions can be taken to expose the unborn baby to as little radiation as possible, such as the use of a lead-lined shield to cover the abdomen.

The following tests and procedures may be used to stage breast cancer during pregnancy:

  • Sentinel lymph node biopsy : The removal of the sentinel lymph node during surgery. The sentinel lymph node is the first lymph node to receive lymphatic drainage from a tumor. It is the first lymph node the cancer is likely to spread to from the tumor. A radioactive substance and/or blue dye is injected near the tumor. The substance or dye flows through the lymph ducts to the lymph nodes. The first lymph node to receive the substance or dye is removed. A pathologist views the tissue under a microscope to look for cancer cells. If cancer cells are not found, it may not be necessary to remove more lymph nodes.
  • CT scan (CAT scan): A procedure that makes a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body, taken from different angles. The pictures are made by a computer linked to an x-ray machine. This procedure is also called computed tomography, computerized tomography, or computerized axial tomography.
  • Bone scan : A procedure to check if there are rapidly dividing cells, such as cancer cells, in the bone. A very small amount of radioactive material is injected into a vein and travels through the bloodstream. The radioactive material collects in bones with cancer and is detected by a scanner.
  • PET scan (positron emission tomography scan): A procedure to find malignant tumor cells in the body. A small amount of radioactive glucose (sugar) is injected into a vein. The PET scanner rotates around the body and makes a picture of where glucose is being used in the body. Malignant tumor cells show up brighter in the picture because they are more active and take up more glucose than normal cells do.
  • MRI (magnetic resonance imaging): A procedure that uses a magnet, radio waves, and a computer to make a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body, such as the brain. This procedure is also called nuclear magnetic resonance imaging (NMRI).
  • Ultrasound exam: A procedure in which high-energy sound waves (ultrasound) are bounced off internal tissues or organs, such as the liver, and make echoes. The echoes form a picture of body tissues called a sonogram. The picture can be printed to be looked at later.
  • Chest x-ray : An x-ray of the organs and bones inside the chest. An x-ray is a type of energy beam that can go through the body and onto film, making a picture of areas inside the body.
   

There are three ways that cancer spreads in the body.

Cancer can spread through tissue, the lymph system, and the blood:

  • Tissue. The cancer spreads from where it began by growing into nearby areas.
  • Lymph system. The cancer spreads from where it began by getting into the lymph system. The cancer travels through the lymph vessels to other parts of the body.
  • Blood. The cancer spreads from where it began by getting into the blood. The cancer travels through the blood vessels to other parts of the body.
   

Cancer may spread from where it began to other parts of the body.

When cancer spreads to another part of the body, it is called metastasis. Cancer cells break away from where they began (the primary tumor) and travel through the lymph system or blood.

  • Lymph system. The cancer gets into the lymph system, travels through the lymph vessels, and forms a tumor (metastatic tumor) in another part of the body.
  • Blood. The cancer gets into the blood, travels through the blood vessels, and forms a tumor (metastatic tumor) in another part of the body.

The metastatic tumor is the same type of cancer as the primary tumor. For example, if breast cancer spreads to the bone, the cancer cells in the bone are actually breast cancer cells. The disease is metastatic breast cancer, not bone cancer.

   

The following stages are used for breast cancer:

This section describes the stages of breast cancer. The breast cancer stage is based on the results of testing that is done on the tumor and lymph nodes removed during surgery and other tests.

Stage 0 (carcinoma in situ) 

There are 3 types of breast carcinoma in situ:

Ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS). Abnormal cells are found in the lining of a breast duct.

Ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS). Abnormal cells are found in the lining of a breast duct.

Lobular carcinoma in situ (LCIS). Abnormal cells are found in the lobules of the breast.

Lobular carcinoma in situ (LCIS). Abnormal cells are found in the lobules of the breast.

  • Ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) is a noninvasivecondition in which abnormalcells are found in the lining of a breastduct. The abnormal cells have not spread outside the duct to other tissues in the breast. In some cases, DCIS may become invasive cancer and spread to other tissues. At this time, there is no way to know which lesions could become invasive.Ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS). Abnormal cells are found in the lining of a breast duct.
  • Lobular carcinoma in situ (LCIS) is a condition in which abnormal cells are found in the lobules of the breast. This condition seldom becomes invasive cancer. However, having LCIS in one breast increases the risk of developing breast cancer in either breast.Lobular carcinoma in situ (LCIS). Abnormal cells are found in the lobules of the breast.
  • Paget disease of the nipple is a condition in which abnormal cells are found in the nipple only.

Stage I 

In stage I, cancer has formed. Stage I is divided into stages IA and IB.

Stage II 

Stage II is divided into stages IIA and IIB.

Stage IIA breast cancer. No tumor is found in the breast and cancer is found in 1 to 3 axillary lymph nodes or lymph nodes near the breastbone (left panel); OR the tumor is 2 centimeters or smaller and cancer is found in 1 to 3 axillary lymph nodes or lymph nodes near the breastbone (middle panel); OR the tumor is larger than 2 centimeters but not larger than 5 centimeters and has not spread to the lymph nodes (right panel).

Stage IIA breast cancer. No tumor is found in the breast and cancer is found in 1 to 3 axillary lymph nodes or lymph nodes near the breastbone (left panel); OR the tumor is 2 centimeters or smaller and cancer is found in 1 to 3 axillary lymph nodes or lymph nodes near the breastbone (middle panel); OR the tumor is larger than 2 centimeters but not larger than 5 centimeters and has not spread to the lymph nodes (right panel).

Stage IIB breast cancer. The tumor is larger than 2 centimeters but not larger than 5 centimeters and small clusters of cancer cells (larger than 0.2 millimeter but not larger than 2 millimeters) are found in the lymph nodes (left panel); OR the tumor is larger than 2 centimeters but not larger than 5 centimeters and cancer is found in 1 to 3 axillary lymph nodes or lymph nodes near the breastbone (middle panel); OR the tumor is larger than 5 centimeters and has not spread to the lymph nodes (right panel).

Stage IIB breast cancer. The tumor is larger than 2 centimeters but not larger than 5 centimeters and small clusters of cancer cells (larger than 0.2 millimeter but not larger than 2 millimeters) are found in the lymph nodes (left panel); OR the tumor is larger than 2 centimeters but not larger than 5 centimeters and cancer is found in 1 to 3 axillary lymph nodes or lymph nodes near the breastbone (middle panel); OR the tumor is larger than 5 centimeters and has not spread to the lymph nodes (right panel).

  • In stage IIA:Stage IIA breast cancer. No tumor is found in the breast and cancer is found in 1 to 3 axillary lymph nodes or lymph nodes near the breastbone (left panel); OR the tumor is 2 centimeters or smaller and cancer is found in 1 to 3 axillary lymph nodes or lymph nodes near the breastbone (middle panel); OR the tumor is larger than 2 centimeters but not larger than 5 centimeters and has not spread to the lymph nodes (right panel).
  • In stage IIB, the tumor is:Stage IIB breast cancer. The tumor is larger than 2 centimeters but not larger than 5 centimeters and small clusters of cancer cells (larger than 0.2 millimeter but not larger than 2 millimeters) are found in the lymph nodes (left panel); OR the tumor is larger than 2 centimeters but not larger than 5 centimeters and cancer is found in 1 to 3 axillary lymph nodes or lymph nodes near the breastbone (middle panel); OR the tumor is larger than 5 centimeters and has not spread to the lymph nodes (right panel).

Stage IIIA 

In stage IIIA:

Stage IIIB 

In stage IIIB, the tumor may be any size and cancer has spread to the chest wall and/or to the skin of the breast and caused swelling or an ulcer. Also, cancer may have spread to:

Cancer that has spread to the skin of the breast may also be inflammatory breast cancer. See the section on Inflammatory Breast Cancer for more information.

Stage IIIC 

In stage IIIC, no tumor is found in the breast or the tumor may be any size. Cancer may have spread to the skin of the breast and caused swelling or an ulcer and/or has spread to the chest wall. Also, cancer has spread to:

Cancer that has spread to the skin of the breast may also be inflammatory breast cancer. See the section on Inflammatory Breast Cancer for more information.

For treatment, stage IIIC breast cancer is divided into operable and inoperable stage IIIC.

Stage IV 

In stage IV, cancer has spread to other organs of the body, most often the bones, lungs, liver, or brain.


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Inflammatory Breast Cancer

In inflammatory breast cancer, cancer has spread to the skin of the breast and the breast looks red and swollen and feels warm. The redness and warmth occur because the cancer cells block the lymph vessels in the skin. The skin of the breast may also show the dimpled appearance called peau d’orange (like the skin of an orange). There may not be any lumps in the breast that can be felt. Inflammatory breast cancer may be stage IIIB, stage IIIC, or stage IV.

Inflammatory breast cancer of the left breast showing peau d’orange and inverted nipple.

Inflammatory breast cancer of the left breast showing peau d’orange and inverted nipple.

Inflammatory breast cancer of the left breast showing peau d’orange and inverted nipple.


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Treatment Option Overview

   

Treatment options for pregnant women depend on the stage of the disease and the age of the unborn baby.

   

Three types of standard treatment are used:

Surgery  

Most pregnant women with breast cancer have surgery to remove the breast. Some of the lymph nodes under the arm may be removed and checked under a microscope for signs of cancer.

Types of surgery to remove the cancer include:

Modified radical mastectomy. The dotted line shows where the entire breast and some lymph nodes are removed. Part of the chest wall muscle may also be removed.

Modified radical mastectomy. The dotted line shows where the entire breast and some lymph nodes are removed. Part of the chest wall muscle may also be removed.

Breast-conserving surgery. The tumor and some normal tissue around it are removed, but not the breast itself. Some lymph nodes under the arm may be removed. Part of the chest wall lining may also be removed if the cancer is near it.

Breast-conserving surgery. The tumor and some normal tissue around it are removed, but not the breast itself. Some lymph nodes under the arm may be removed. Part of the chest wall lining may also be removed if the cancer is near it.

  • Modified radical mastectomy: Surgery to remove the whole breast that has cancer, many of the lymph nodes under the arm, the lining over the chest muscles, and sometimes, part of the chest wall muscles. This type of surgery is most common in pregnant women.Modified radical mastectomy. The dotted line shows where the entire breast and some lymph nodes are removed. Part of the chest wall muscle may also be removed.
  • Breast-conserving surgery: Surgery to remove the cancer and some normal tissue around it, but not the breast itself. Part of the chest wall lining may also be removed if the cancer is near it. This type of surgery may also be called lumpectomy, partial mastectomy, segmental mastectomy, quadrantectomy, or breast-sparing surgery.Breast-conserving surgery. The tumor and some normal tissue around it are removed, but not the breast itself. Some lymph nodes under the arm may be removed. Part of the chest wall lining may also be removed if the cancer is near it.

Even if the doctor removes all of the cancer that can be seen at the time of surgery, the patient may be given radiation therapy or chemotherapy after surgery to try to kill any cancer cells that may be left. For pregnant women with early-stage breast cancer, radiation therapy and hormone therapy are given after the baby is born. Treatment given after surgery, to lower the risk that the cancer will come back, is called adjuvant therapy.

Radiation therapy  

Radiation therapy is a cancer treatment that uses high-energy x-rays or other types of radiation to kill cancer cells or keep them from growing. There are two types of radiation therapy:

The way the radiation therapy is given depends on the type and stage of the cancer being treated.

External radiation therapy is not given to pregnant women with early stage (stage I or II) breast cancer because it can harm the unborn baby. For women with late stage (stage III or IV) breast cancer, radiation therapy is not given during the first 3 months of pregnancy and is delayed until after the baby is born, if possible.

Chemotherapy  

Chemotherapy is a cancer treatment that uses drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells, either by killing the cells or by stopping the cells from dividing. When chemotherapy is taken by mouth or injected into a vein or muscle, the drugs enter the bloodstream and can reach cancer cells throughout the body (systemic chemotherapy). When chemotherapy is placed directly into the cerebrospinal fluid, an organ, or a body cavity such as the abdomen, the drugs mainly affect cancer cells in those areas (regional chemotherapy). The way the chemotherapy is given depends on the type and stage of the cancer being treated.

Chemotherapy is usually not given during the first 3 months of pregnancy. Chemotherapy given after this time does not usually harm the unborn baby but may cause early labor and low birth weight.

See Drugs Approved for Breast Cancer for more information.

   

Ending the pregnancy does not seem to improve the mother’s chance of survival.

Because ending the pregnancy is not likely to improve the mother’s chance of survival, it is not usually a treatment option.


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Treatment Options by Stage

Early Stage Breast Cancer (Stage I and Stage II)

Treatment of early-stage breast cancer (stage I and stage II) may include the following:

Late Stage Breast Cancer (Stage III and Stage IV)

Treatment of late-stagebreast cancer (stage III and stage IV) may include the following:

Radiation therapy and chemotherapy should not be given during the first 3 months of pregnancy.


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Other Information About Pregnancy and Breast Cancer

   

Lactation (breast milk production) and breast-feeding should be stopped if surgery or chemotherapy is planned.

If surgery is planned, breast-feeding should be stopped to reduce blood flow in the breasts and make them smaller. Breast-feeding should also be stopped if chemotherapy is planned. Many anticancer drugs, especially cyclophosphamide and methotrexate, may occur in high levels in breast milk and may harm the nursing baby. Women receiving chemotherapy should not breast-feed. Stopping lactation does not improve the mother's prognosis.

   

Breast cancer does not appear to harm the unborn baby.

Breast cancer cells do not seem to pass from the mother to the unborn baby.

   

Pregnancy does not seem to affect the survival of women who have had breast cancer in the past.

For women who have had breast cancer, pregnancy does not seem to affect their survival. However, some doctors recommend that a woman wait 2 years after treatment for breast cancer before trying to have a baby, so that any early return of the cancer would be detected. This may affect a woman’s decision to become pregnant. The unborn baby does not seem to be affected if the mother has had breast cancer.


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To Learn More About Breast Cancer and Pregnancy

For more information from the National Cancer Institute about breast cancer and pregnancy, see the following:

For general cancer information and other resources from the National Cancer Institute, see the following:


Back to Top Source: The National Cancer Institute's Physician Data Query (PDQ®) Cancer Information Summaries (http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq)