Being diagnosed with cancer while you are pregnant is rare – but it can happen. It is also possible to become pregnant during cancer treatment.
Navigating a cancer diagnosis while you are carrying a child presents unique challenges, which can impact your wellbeing and ability to cope. It is normal to experience a range of emotions.
You may worry about how cancer treatment will impact your pregnancy, and whether it will harm your baby and your fertility in the future. You may feel a sense of grief or loss that your pregnancy is different to how you imagined it. Your thoughts about growing your family and having a child may also change.
What you decide to do with your pregnancy and your cancer diagnosis is a very personal decision and it is important to remember that support is available. You may find it helpful to share your feelings with your loved ones, or a professional counsellor or psychologist.
Your health care team, including your GP, cancer specialist and obstetrician, can answer any questions you may have about your cancer diagnosis and pregnancy, and provide recommendations for your care.
You are not alone. Call 13 11 20 to speak to one of our experienced and compassionate cancer nurses. They can provide information, emotional support and connections to a range of services to help you manage your cancer diagnosis, treatment, and possible side effects while pregnant.
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Cancer and pregnancy resources and support services
You may also find the following resources helpful:
Cancer treatment and pregnancy
It's possible to have cancer treatment during pregnancy. However, some cancer treatments can impact the development of an unborn baby, so it's important to discuss the potential risks and benefits with your doctors before treatment begins. Speak with your obstetrics team about how you can monitor your baby’s health and development during your pregnancy, which could include more regular growth scans and testing.
The treatment recommended to you will be based on the type of cancer you have, whether it has spread to other parts of your body (its stage) and how to avoid harming your developing baby. Check with your specialist about how soon treatment for your cancer should begin, as it may not affect the success of the treatment to wait a while. Ask them to explain the options and take as much time as you can before deciding.
Some people choose not to have treatment while carrying a child. If cancer is diagnosed in the early weeks of pregnancy, some people decide to terminate the pregnancy so they can start treatment immediately, while others who are diagnosed later in the pregnancy choose to have their baby before the due date. In some cases, treatment can be delayed until after the baby’s birth.
It's important to look after yourself during this time, both physically and emotionally. Accepting support from others, resting when you can and maintaining good nutrition can be helpful. Try to focus on what you can control and speak to your loved ones, or a trained counsellor or psychologist, if you feel overwhelmed.
Making treatment decisions
Making decisions about your cancer treatment and pregnancy can be challenging – and it is a different experience for everybody. There will likely be lots to consider, and you may be unsure or overwhelmed.
Know your options
Understanding the disease, available treatments, risks to your pregnancy and any extra costs can help you weigh up the options and make a well-informed decision.
Check if the specialist is part of a multidisciplinary team and if the treatment centre is the most appropriate one for you – you may be able to have treatment closer to home, or it might be worth travelling to a centre that specialises in a particular treatment.
Record the details
When your doctor first says you have cancer, you may not remember everything you are told, especially while you are pregnant. Taking notes can help, or you might like to ask if you can record the discussion. It is a good idea to have a family member, partner or friend go with you to appointments to join in the discussion, write notes or simply listen.
If you are confused or want to check anything, it is important to ask your specialist questions. Try to prepare a list before appointments. If you have a lot of questions, you could talk to a cancer care coordinator, social worker or call our cancer nurses on 13 11 20.
Consider a second opinion
Sometimes, certain symptoms of cancer and symptoms of pregnancy overlap, which can result in a delayed diagnosis. You may want to get a second opinion from another specialist to confirm or clarify your specialist’s recommendations, or for reassurance that you have explored all your options.
Specialists are used to people doing this. Your GP or specialist can refer you to another specialist and send your initial results to that person. You can get a second opinion even if you have started treatment or still want to be treated by your first doctor. You might decide you would prefer to be treated by the second specialist.
It's your decision
You have the right to accept or refuse any treatment you are offered. You may want to discuss your decision with your treatment team, GP, family and friends, or learn more about your rights and responsibilities.
Kate and Ava's story
“Ten weeks into my pregnancy, I started to have severe episodes of diarrhoea and constipation. There was blood in my stool, I was losing weight and I felt extremely tired... The doctors were unsure about my condition... But further tests finally revealed my diagnosis. I had stage two colorectal cancer – my tumour was the size of a baseball.
For those who are experiencing cancer during pregnancy, dig deep and fight. It will be the hardest and the best thing you ever do in your life.”
Read Kate's story
Changes to your birth plan
A cancer diagnosis and treatment may change your birth plan. This might include delivery prior to full term or changes to either a planned caesarean or vaginal birth.
Make sure your oncologist is working closely with your obstetrician to develop a birth plan that suits you and your baby’s needs.
"My oncologist wanted to start treatment as soon as possible, so it was a case of my obstetrician and oncologist deciding on a day to deliver my son, then starting my cancer treatment. He was delivered safely at 32 weeks." – Lily
Breastfeeding during treatment
The type of treatment you are having, when you are having it and which area of your body is affected will determine whether you are able to breastfeed during treatment.
Some cancer treatments can make breastmilk unsafe for your baby. This is because the drugs used to fight cancer can be passed to your baby through your breastmilk. Speak to your doctors about whether it is safe for you to breastfeed during treatment.
Cancer treatment can also impact your ability to produce breastmilk. If your cancer treatment has or will impact on your ability to breastfeed, seek assistance from a lactation consultant.
Termination and miscarriage
As part of your cancer diagnosis and treatment, you may need to consider termination and the risk of miscarriage. These are extremely impactful and emotional issues, and support is available.
It is important to ask questions and have detailed discussions with your health care team if termination is required so you can fully understand the steps involved, the recovery process and what it will mean for you, both emotionally and physically.
If you need to have treatment or surgery that may result in miscarriage or increase risk to your baby, make sure that you fully understand these outcomes as well.
Resources and support for termination and miscarriage
If you are facing or have experienced miscarriage or termination, you may find the following resources and support services helpful:
Ridma and Dion's story
“I was 12 weeks pregnant in July 2015 when I noticed that I had yellowish eyes and my skin tone had changed. I’d been vomiting and been unable to eat a lot... We did a bone marrow biopsy and I was told the news. I had lymphoma – and an aggressive one at that... I’d been so excited with the pregnancy, this was a shock to the system.
I still get nervous whenever I feel unwell, however I feel much better and stronger because of what I have gone through. If there was any doubt that life was short, my experience just reinforced it. Don’t take life for granted.”
Read Ridma's story
Fertility and cancer
Cancer and its treatment may impact your ability to have children in the future (fertility). Certain cancer treatments including chemotherapy and radiation therapy may damage your reproductive organs.
Talk to your doctors about the impact of cancer treatment on your fertility. You can also seek advice from a fertility specialist on ways to preserve or protect your ability to have children.
You may need to make fertility decisions before you've given much thought to whether you want to have children in the future. Even if your family is complete, you may still experience sadness or grief following the loss of your fertility.
Call 13 11 20 to speak to our trusted cancer nurses, who can refer you to a range of tailored support services. You may also find it helpful to talk to a professional counsellor or psychologist about your feelings. Fertility clinics often offer a counselling service.
Having children after cancer
Can I have a child after I've had cancer?
This is a very personal decision. A cancer diagnosis may affect the way you think and feel about having a child. If you have a partner, you will want to discuss your family plans together. Fertility clinics often have counsellors who can talk through the benefits and disadvantages of your situation.
How long should I wait to conceive after treatment?
This depends on many factors, including the type of cancer and type of treatment. Some cancer specialists advise waiting between six months and two years after treatment ends. This may be to allow your eggs to recover, and to ensure you remain in good health during this time. It’s best to discuss the timing and suitable contraception with your doctor.
Will getting pregnant again bring back the cancer?
Research shows that for most cancers, pregnancy does not increase the chances of cancer coming back (recurring). However, being pregnant may affect your ability to undergo certain testing and monitoring for cancer. The types of symptoms you should be aware of may also be impacted by pregnancy. Speak to your doctor or to a fertility counsellor for more information and to help manage your concerns.
If I've had cancer, will my children get cancer?
Studies show that if one or both parents have a history of cancer, their child is at no greater risk of getting cancer than anyone else.
A small percentage of some cancers (up to 5%) are caused by an inherited faulty gene. This is known as familial cancer. The faulty gene increases the risk of cancer, but even then, it does not mean that a child will inherit the gene and develop cancer. If you are concerned about this, talk to your doctor. They may refer you to a family cancer centre or genetic counselling service.
Caring for someone with cancer
If your loved one is diagnosed with cancer while they are pregnant, you may have to consider what it means to be a carer. It may take time to adjust to the news, and you may experience a range of emotions. It’s natural to be worried about the demands that come with a caring role and the impact this might have on your life.
If you have any questions, call Cancer Council on 13 11 20. Join our online discussion forum to connect with others who have a similar experience, or listen to our podcast episodes for carers, family and friends for support.
Expert content reviewers:
A/Prof Orla McNally, Consultant Gynaecological Oncologist, Director Oncology/Dysplasia, Royal Women's Hospital; Kate Fitzgerald, consumer; Natalie Lalor, 13 11 20 Cancer Council Victoria.
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The information on this webpage was produced by Cancer Council Victoria and adapted from Fertility and Cancer - A guide for people with cancer, their families and friends (2020 edition). This webpage was last updated in February 2022.