Skip to Content
This information is produced and provided by the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The information in this topic may have changed since it was written. For the most current information, contact the National Cancer Institute via the Internet web site at http://cancer.gov or call 1-800-4-CANCER.
Breast cancer is the most common cancer in pregnant and postpartum women and occurs in about 1 in 3,000 pregnant women. The average patient is between 32 to 38 years of age and because many women choose to delay childbearing, it is likely that the incidence of breast cancer during pregnancy will increase.
Breast cancer pathology is similar in age-matched pregnant and nonpregnant women. Hormone receptor assays are usually negative in pregnant breast cancer patients, but this may be the result of receptor binding by high serum estrogen levels associated with the pregnancy. Enzyme immunocytochemical receptor assays, however, are more sensitive than competitive binding assays. A study that used binding methods indicated similar receptor positivity between pregnant and nonpregnant women with breast cancer. The study concluded that increased estrogen levels during pregnancy could result in a higher incidence of receptor positivity detected with immunohistochemistry than is detected by radiolabeled ligand binding, which is because of competitive inhibition by high levels of endogenous estrogen.
The natural tenderness and engorgement of the breasts of pregnant and lactating women may hinder detection of discrete masses and early diagnoses of breast cancer. Delays in diagnoses are common, with an average reported delay of 5 to 15 months from the onset of symptoms.[2,3,4,5] Because of this delay, cancers are typically detected at a later stage than in a nonpregnant, age-matched population. To detect breast cancer, pregnant and lactating women should practice self-examination and undergo a breast examination as part of the routine prenatal examination by a doctor. If an abnormality is found, diagnostic approaches such as ultrasound and mammography may be used. With proper shielding, mammography poses little risk of radiation exposure to the fetus. Mammograms should only be used, however, to evaluate dominant masses and to locate occult carcinomas in the presence of other suspicious physical findings. Since at least 25% of mammograms in pregnancy may be negative in the presence of cancer, a biopsy is essential for the diagnosis of any palpable mass. Diagnosis may be safely accomplished with a fine-needle aspiration, core biopsy, or excisional biopsy under local anesthesia. To avoid a false-positive diagnosis as a result of misinterpretation of pregnancy-related changes, the pathologist should be advised that the patient is pregnant.
Overall survival of pregnant women with breast cancer may be worse than in nonpregnant women at all stages; however, this may be primarily the result of delayed diagnoses. Termination of pregnancy has not been shown to have any beneficial effect on breast cancer outcome and is not usually considered as a therapeutic option.[2,3,5,10,11]
Procedures used for determining the stage of breast cancer should be modified for pregnant women to avoid radiation exposure to the fetus. Nuclear scans cause fetal radiation exposure. If such scans are essential for evaluation, hydration and Foley catheter drainage of the bladder can be used to prevent retention of radioactivity. Timing of the exposure to radiation relative to the gestational age of the fetus may be more critical than the actual dose of radiation delivered. Radiation exposure during the first trimester (>0.1 Gy) may lead to congenital malformations, mental retardation, and increased relative risk of carcinogenesis. Doses greater than 1 Gy may produce congenital abnormalities. Doses of 0.1 Gy may result in fewer defects.
Chest x-rays with abdominal shielding are considered safe, but as with all radiologic procedures, they should be used only when essential for making treatment decisions.[1,3] A chest x-ray delivers 0.00008 Gy.
For the diagnosis of bone metastases, a bone scan is preferable to a skeletal series because the bone scan delivers a smaller amount of radiation and is more sensitive. A bone scan delivers 0.001 Gy. Evaluation of the liver can be performed with ultrasound, and brain metastases can be diagnosed with a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan. Data on MRI during pregnancy are not yet available, but gadolinium crosses the placenta and is associated with fetal abnormalities in rats.
Suppression of lactation does not improve prognosis. If surgery is planned, however, lactation should be suppressed to decrease the size and vascularity of the breasts. If chemotherapy is to be given, lactation should also be suppressed because many antineoplastics (i.e., cyclophosphamide and methotrexate), when given systemically, may occur in high levels in breast milk and would affect the nursing baby. In general, women receiving chemotherapy should not breastfeed.
Fetal Consequences of Maternal Breast Cancer
No damaging effects on the fetus from maternal breast cancer have been demonstrated, and there are no reported cases of maternal-fetal transfer of breast cancer cells.
Consequences of Pregnancy in Patients with a History of Breast Cancer
Based on limited retrospective data, pregnancy does not appear to compromise the survival of women with a previous history of breast cancer, and no deleterious effects have been demonstrated in the fetus.[1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9] Some physicians recommend that patients wait 2 years after diagnoses before attempting to conceive. This allows early recurrence to become manifest, which may influence the decision to become a parent. Little is known about pregnancy after bone marrow transplantation and high-dose chemotherapy with or without total-body irradiation. In one report of pregnancies after bone marrow transplantation for hematologic disorders, a 25% incidence of preterm labor and low birth weight for gestational-age infants was noted.
Surgery is recommended as the primary treatment of breast cancer in pregnant women. Since radiation in therapeutic doses may expose the fetus to potentially harmful scatter radiation, modified radical mastectomy is the treatment of choice. Conservative surgery with postpartum radiation therapy has been used for breast preservation. An analysis has been performed that helps to predict the risk of waiting to have radiation.[3,4]
If adjuvant chemotherapy is necessary, it should not be given during the first trimester to avoid the risk of teratogenicity. Chemotherapy given after the first trimester is generally not associated with a high risk of fetal malformation but may be associated with premature labor and fetal wastage. If considered necessary, chemotherapy may be given after the first trimester. Data on the immediate and long-term effects of chemotherapy on the fetus are limited.[2,4,5,6,7,8,9]
Studies using adjuvant hormonal therapy alone or in combination with chemotherapy for breast cancer in pregnant women are also limited. Therefore, no conclusion has been reached regarding these options. Radiation therapy, if indicated, should be withheld until after delivery since it may be harmful to the fetus at any stage of development.
First-trimester radiation therapy should be avoided. Chemotherapy may be given after the first trimester as discussed in the section on Early Stage Breast Cancer. Because the mother may have a limited life span (most studies show a 5-year survival rate of 10% in pregnant patients with stage III and IV disease), and there is a risk of fetal damage with treatment during the first trimester,[1,2] issues regarding continuation of the pregnancy should be discussed with the patient and her family. Therapeutic abortion does not improve prognosis.[1,2,3,4,5]
The PDQ cancer information summaries are reviewed regularly and updated as new information becomes available. This section describes the latest changes made to this summary as of the date above.
Editorial changes were made to this summary.
This summary is written and maintained by the PDQ Adult Treatment Editorial Board, which is editorially independent of NCI. The summary reflects an independent review of the literature and does not represent a policy statement of NCI or NIH. More information about summary policies and the role of the PDQ Editorial Boards in maintaining the PDQ summaries can be found on the About This PDQ Summary and PDQ NCI's Comprehensive Cancer Database pages.
Purpose of This Summary
This PDQ cancer information summary for health professionals provides comprehensive, peer-reviewed, evidence-based information about the treatment of breast cancer and pregnancy. It is intended as a resource to inform and assist clinicians who care for cancer patients. It does not provide formal guidelines or recommendations for making health care decisions.
Reviewers and Updates
This summary is reviewed regularly and updated as necessary by the PDQ Adult Treatment Editorial Board, which is editorially independent of the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The summary reflects an independent review of the literature and does not represent a policy statement of NCI or the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Board members review recently published articles each month to determine whether an article should:
Changes to the summaries are made through a consensus process in which Board members evaluate the strength of the evidence in the published articles and determine how the article should be included in the summary.
The lead reviewers for Breast Cancer Treatment and Pregnancy are:
Any comments or questions about the summary content should be submitted to Cancer.gov through the Web site's Contact Form. Do not contact the individual Board Members with questions or comments about the summaries. Board members will not respond to individual inquiries.
Levels of Evidence
Some of the reference citations in this summary are accompanied by a level-of-evidence designation. These designations are intended to help readers assess the strength of the evidence supporting the use of specific interventions or approaches. The PDQ Adult Treatment Editorial Board uses a formal evidence ranking system in developing its level-of-evidence designations.
Permission to Use This Summary
PDQ is a registered trademark. Although the content of PDQ documents can be used freely as text, it cannot be identified as an NCI PDQ cancer information summary unless it is presented in its entirety and is regularly updated. However, an author would be permitted to write a sentence such as "NCI's PDQ cancer information summary about breast cancer prevention states the risks succinctly: [include excerpt from the summary]."
The preferred citation for this PDQ summary is:
National Cancer Institute: PDQ® Breast Cancer Treatment and Pregnancy. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute. Date last modified <MM/DD/YYYY>. Available at: http://www.cancer.gov/types/breast/hp/pregnancy-breast-treatment-pdq. Accessed <MM/DD/YYYY>.
Images in this summary are used with permission of the author(s), artist, and/or publisher for use within the PDQ summaries only. Permission to use images outside the context of PDQ information must be obtained from the owner(s) and cannot be granted by the National Cancer Institute. Information about using the illustrations in this summary, along with many other cancer-related images, is available in Visuals Online, a collection of over 2,000 scientific images.
Based on the strength of the available evidence, treatment options may be described as either "standard" or "under clinical evaluation." These classifications should not be used as a basis for insurance reimbursement determinations. More information on insurance coverage is available on Cancer.gov on the Coping with Cancer: Financial, Insurance, and Legal Information page.
More information about contacting us or receiving help with the Cancer.gov Web site can be found on our Contact Us for Help page. Questions can also be submitted to Cancer.gov through the Web site's Contact Form.
For more information, U.S. residents may call the National Cancer Institute's (NCI's) Cancer Information Service toll-free at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237) Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m., Eastern Time. A trained Cancer Information Specialist is available to answer your questions.
The NCI's LiveHelp® online chat service provides Internet users with the ability to chat online with an Information Specialist. The service is available from 8:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. Eastern time, Monday through Friday. Information Specialists can help Internet users find information on NCI Web sites and answer questions about cancer.
Write to us
For more information from the NCI, please write to this address:
Search the NCI Web site
The NCI Web site provides online access to information on cancer, clinical trials, and other Web sites and organizations that offer support and resources for cancer patients and their families. For a quick search, use the search box in the upper right corner of each Web page. The results for a wide range of search terms will include a list of "Best Bets," editorially chosen Web pages that are most closely related to the search term entered.
There are also many other places to get materials and information about cancer treatment and services. Hospitals in your area may have information about local and regional agencies that have information on finances, getting to and from treatment, receiving care at home, and dealing with problems related to cancer treatment.
The NCI has booklets and other materials for patients, health professionals, and the public. These publications discuss types of cancer, methods of cancer treatment, coping with cancer, and clinical trials. Some publications provide information on tests for cancer, cancer causes and prevention, cancer statistics, and NCI research activities. NCI materials on these and other topics may be ordered online or printed directly from the NCI Publications Locator. These materials can also be ordered by telephone from the Cancer Information Service toll-free at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237).
Last Revised: 2014-09-02
Healthwise, Healthwise for every health decision, and the Healthwise logo are trademarks of Healthwise, Incorporated.
© Copyright 2017 Rush Copley Medical Center • 2000 Ogden Avenue; Aurora, IL 60504
Main: 630-978-6200 • Physician Referral & Information: 630-978-6700 or 866-4COPLEY (866-426-7539)