Getting a cancer diagnosis while pregnant can be devastating. You may experience a mix of emotions, including fear and concerns about your health and that of the unborn child. Cervical cancer is the most common gynecologic cancer diagnosed during pregnancy. Knowing its symptoms and discussing them with your doctor is an essential first step in detecting this condition. If diagnosed with cervical cancer during pregnancy, cancer treatment can be an option that may allow you to deliver your baby safely.
What’s the most common cancer during pregnancy?
Cancer during pregnancy is rare. It affects about 1 in 1000 pregnancies yearly. You can develop any type of cancer during pregnancy.
Breast cancer is overall the most common cancer found during pregnancy and affects 1 out of 3,000 pregnant people.
However, cervical cancer is the most common gynecologic cancer diagnosed during pregnancy. Still, cervical cancer in pregnant patients or in people who recently gave birth is uncommon and accounts for about 1% to 3% of all cervical cancer cases.
Other types of cancer during pregnancy include:
- Gestational trophoblastic disease
- Lymphomas and leukemias
- Thyroid cancer
Researchers note that the number of cervical cancer cases diagnosed in pregnant people is increasing. They think it may be because more people are choosing to become pregnant later in life – after age 30 – which coincides with the time when they would be at a higher risk of developing cancer. In general, your risk of developing most cancers increases as you get older.
Does cervical cancer grow faster when pregnant?
Some scientists have found no evidence to support that being pregnant causes cervical cancer to grow faster when compared to people who are not pregnant.
Other researchers, however, have found a link between the increased levels of hormones that happen during pregnancy and the human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is a virus that increases a person’s risk of developing cervical cancer.
Since cancer in pregnancy is rare, there aren’t many large studies available to answer this question. More research is needed to better understand if there is a definitive link.
What are the symptoms of cervical cancer during pregnancy?
The symptoms of cervical cancer when you’re pregnant are the same as in someone with cervical cancer who’s not pregnant. The American Cancer Society reports that you may not have any symptoms in the early stage of cervical cancer. As the tumor becomes larger or spreads to nearby tissue, you may experience:
- Unusual vaginal bleeding like bleeding after sex
- Abnormal bloody or non-bloody vaginal discharge
- Pain during sex
If the tumor is very advanced, you may notice:
- Blood in the urine
- Leg swelling
- Difficulty urinating or having a bowel movement
These symptoms can be mistaken for other conditions or changes that happen in a pregnant person’s body. You should talk to your healthcare provider about any unusual symptoms or concerning changes you notice when pregnant.
What happens when you are pregnant and have cancer?
If you’re pregnant and are diagnosed with cancer, the first step is to talk to your doctor about treatment options. These will depend on your individual situation.
Many pregnant people with cancer are successfully treated and go on to have healthy babies. In some instances, if the tumor is growing very quickly and you’re still early in the pregnancy, your healthcare provider may recommend terminating the pregnancy so you can start cancer treatment.
Choosing cancer treatment options when pregnant is difficult. It’s essential to have a team of healthcare providers you trust and involve family members and a partner, if you have one, for support.
What treatment can I get for cervical cancer when pregnant?
Your treatment options will depend on:
- Your general health
- The size of the tumor
- Whether it’s spread
- How far along you are in your pregnancy
- Your wishes
Since cervical cancer in pregnancy is not common, there isn’t much research on the best treatment. The most common treatment options include:
- Surgery: If the tumor is small, your doctor may recommend a cone biopsy or removal of the cervix (trachelectomy) during pregnancy. If the tumor is large, you may need chemotherapy first to shrink it. In some cases, they may do surgery to remove the lymph nodes in your pelvis to check if they have cancer cells.
- Chemotherapy: The timing of chemotherapy is important. It’s not given during the first three months of pregnancy because it can harm the unborn child. Doctors will typically give chemotherapy during the second and third trimesters since it carries a low risk of harming the fetus during that time.
Your doctor may then recommend that you have a cesarean section to remove the baby and potentially a hysterectomy (removal of the womb) at the same time.
Throughout your entire treatment, your doctor will continue to monitor you and your unborn baby to ensure you are both safe and progressing well.
Can you have a healthy pregnancy with cervical cancer?
Cervical cancer during pregnancy rarely affects your unborn child. This type of cancer usually does not spread from the placenta to the fetus. However, cancer treatments may cause pregnancy complications, including miscarriage.
According to Cancer Research UK, most cervical cancers diagnosed during pregnancy are early stage.
In certain situations – for example, if the cancer is in an early stage – your doctor may recommend that you continue with the pregnancy and delay cancer treatment until after your baby is born.
In some instances, they may choose to treat the cancer while you’re pregnant. Still, there are cases where they may recommend that you terminate the pregnancy to begin cancer treatment right away.
Learning you have cancer while you’re pregnant can be overwhelming. Prenatal exams – including getting a Pap smear – are an important first step in diagnosing potential cervical cancer during pregnancy. Be vigilant and report unusual symptoms to your doctor for further tests. Cancer treatment during pregnancy is available, and many people can safely deliver their babies after treatment.
While breast cancer is the most common cancer in pregnant people, cervical cancer is the most common gynecologic cancer diagnosed during pregnancy.
Getting prenatal screening is key to a better chance of early detection of cervical cancer and the best overall outcome for you and your baby.
Being pregnant does not change the symptoms of cervical cancer, which include abnormal vaginal bleeding or vaginal discharge, and pain with sex.
If you develop cervical cancer when you’re pregnant, an important first step is to talk to your healthcare provider about the right treatment for you.
Coping with cancer during pregnancy is stressful, and you may feel isolated. It’s important to ask appropriate questions about your options to help you make the best decision for you and your unborn child.
American Cancer Society. Signs and Symptoms of Cervical Cancer.
American Society of Clinical Oncology. Cancer During Pregnancy.
Beharee, N., et al. (2019). Diagnosis and Treatment of Cervical Cancer in Pregnant Women. Cancer Medicine.
Cancer Research UK. Pregnancy | Cervical cancer.
Hepner, A., et al. (2019). Cancer During Pregnancy: The Oncologist Overview. World Journal of Oncology.
Iavazzo, C., et al. (2018). Current Management of Gynecologic Cancer in Pregnancy. Journal of the Turkish German Gynecological Association.
Korenaga, T. K., et al. (2020). Gynecologic Cancer in Pregnancy. Gynecologic Oncology.
MacMillan Cancer Support. Cancer and Pregnancy.
MedlinePlus. Tumors and Pregnancy.
National Foundation for Cancer Research. 5 Things You Need to Know About Cancer During Pregnancy.