New cancer treatment during pregnancy can save both mother and baby
LEUVEN, Belgium, July 14, 2015 (LifeSiteNews) – When cancer occurred during pregnancy in the past, often the child was sacrificed to treat the mother, and sometimes the mother sacrificed herself to save the child. But, according to the magazine Cancer World, the pioneering work of a Belgian medical researcher has meant that, over the past decade, more and more often, both mother and baby are saved.
Cancer of any kind is rare in pregnant women, with 1 case per 1,000 to 2,000 pregnancies. But the incidence appears to be increasing as women delay pregnancy.
When Dr. Frederic Amant graduated from the Catholic University of Leuven with a Ph.D. in 2002, Cancer World relates, he found that little attention was paid to the convergence between cancer and pregnancy because of its rarity. The result was that when the occasion did arise, matters too often ended in death for the unborn child or mother, but mostly for the child.
Amant decided to specialize as a gynecological oncologist. Leuven's university hospital did not offer such a position, so he went to South Africa. His alma mater did eventually establish a spot for him, so he returned to Leuven to build a team – a team that has since gathered data and developed techniques to prevent hundreds of unnecessary abortions being done.
One of the first areas Amant explored was chemotherapy. He was consulted regarding a pregnant woman with cervical cancer. "The standard treatment was abandoning the pregnancy and carrying out a hysterectomy," he told Cancer World. But the woman had already had a miscarriage and wanted the child, so he explored chemotherapy as an alternative, finding evidence that it could be done without harming the child.
Thanks to Amant's team's efforts and those of others inspired by him, there is a now a standardized list of chemotherapy drugs that can and cannot be used during pregnancy. As well, Amant's group has compiled evidence dispelling the belief that pregnancy per se reduces the chances of success for cancer treatment. "Initially, though," he admits, "it was hard to get grants to do this work as funders just did not think it was realistic."
Amant says that with cancer during late-term pregnancy, sometimes the old hard choices must still be made between one life and another. But for earlier-term cases, he refuses to perform abortions, no matter what the mother or both parents want.
Still in the works is a longitudinal study looking for long-term impacts on the children who were in the womb during their mothers' chemotherapy. So far, there have been no negative findings. What has been found is that the old approach – to induce premature delivery in order to protect the child from chemotherapy – is ill-advised. The prematurity had more negative effects on children than being subjected to chemo in the womb.
The new approach to treatment eschews chemotherapy in the first trimester, when the unborn child is most vulnerable to it. Fortunately, or providentially, the placenta protects the child from the drugs, which attack the cancer.
At Leuven, the discovery of breast cancer during pregnancy "is not an emergency." Through aggressive efforts to publish its results as widely as possible, Amant's team hopes that every corner of the world of medicine will learn what Leuven has learned.