What’s the link between breast cancer and pregnancy?

Pregnancy and breast cancer

Normally, the cells in our bodies grow, divide into new cells, and die off in an orderly fashion. During childhood the healthy cells divide very quickly, and once we reach adulthood they slow down, dividing only to replace worn-out or dying cells and to repair injuries. Cancer cells, however, keep on growing and dividing; instead of dying off they keep making new, abnormal cells.

A “risk factor” for breast cancer is anything that increases our statistical risk of developing the disease. Some risk factors, such as smoking, weight, physical activity, and alcohol consumption, are within our control, but many of the most significant risk factors are not: they include age, family history, race, and medical background. However, having a risk factor, or even several, doesn’t mean that a woman will get the disease, and many women who do get it, don’t have any of the major risk factors other than gender and sometimes age.

Pregnancy doesn’t cause breast cancer, and having breast cancer during pregnancy is very rare. However, pregnancy and breast cancer do impact each other. Hormones like oestrogen are necessary to help normal cells grow and divide, but they can also promote the growth of breast cancer cells. Because pregnancy stops monthly menstrual cycles and shifts the hormone balance towards progesterone rather than oestrogen, women who become pregnant for the first time before the age of thirty-five and have several pregnancies, may have a slightly lower risk of developing breast cancer later on. Breastfeeding is also believed to lower the risk, and the longer a woman breastfeeds – when the combined time of breastfeeding for all her children is at least two years – the greater the protective benefits appear to be.

Women who have no children or have them later in life have a slightly higher breast cancer risk. The reason for this difference could be related to the fact that breast cells grow rapidly during pregnancy and if there is any genetic damage present, which is more likely with increased age, the existing genetic damage gets ‘copied’ and multiplied as the cells grow.

If you do get breast cancer during pregnancy, it can be safely and successfully treated, particularly if diagnosed early. Because of the changes that take place in your breasts when you’re pregnant, it can be more difficult to identify small masses or lumps so you need to be especially vigilant. As well as continuing with monthly self-examination of your breasts, you should see your healthcare provider regularly.

Although it’s thought to be relatively safe to have a mammogram during pregnancy, you may prefer not to take the chance unless your doctor believes it’s absolutely necessary; mammograms may not be as helpful anyway when you’re pregnant due to the increased density of the breasts. Generally, any suspicious breast changes detected when you’re pregnant are biopsied.

There’s no evidence that having breast cancer while pregnant harms the baby though some of the treatments may do so, and for that reason surgery (either lumpectomy or mastectomy) is usually the preferred approach. Breastfeeding while you have breast cancer also won’t harm your baby, and it doesn’t appear that stopping doing so has any effect on the cancer. Pregnancy has no proven effect on the overall length of time a woman who has had breast cancer can expect to live; some studies seem to indicate that women who have a child after breast cancer treatment have better overall survival than those who do not. Babies born to women who have had breast cancer in the past are usually normal and healthy, though some doctors believe that postponing pregnancy for two years or so after treatment is advisable.

Other articles you may be interested in:
Regular health check up’s you’ve got to have
Cancer-fighting foods you should be eating
Men and breast cancer
Products to avoid while you’re pregnant
The importantce of being a mother

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