Ovarian Cancer and Pregnancy
October 6, 2020Pregnancy can be a thrilling experience; however, facing a possible cancer diagnosis can leave expecting mothers feeling frightened and anxious. If you are experiencing changes in your body that are concerning you, it’s important to seek medical care promptly. Early detection of cancer through screenings and regular wellness checkups can help put you in a better position for successful treatment and long-term healing.1 Review the common symptoms, statistics, treatment options, and risk factors for ovarian cancer below and contact your OB-GYN for more information.
Ovarian Cancer Symptoms
Sometimes the symptoms of pregnancy can be similar to symptoms of ovarian cancer. Don’t let this alarm you; although ovarian cancer is a very serious and sometimes deadly disease, it is rare for pregnant women to find an ovarian tumor or mass. One study found that only 2.4 percent to 5.7 percent of pregnancies will present with an ovarian tumor or mass. Of those masses, only about 5 percent are expected to be malignant.2 Understanding the symptoms of ovarian cancer and discussing concerns with your doctor are the best ways to stay informed without needlessly adding anxiety to your life.
These are some of the most common signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer.
- Abdominal bloating, pressure, or pain
- Upset stomach
- Difficulty eating
- Feeling full too soon when eating
- Urinating frequently, sometimes with urgency
- Back pain
As you can see, most, if not all, of these symptoms are also common discomforts during pregnancy. So what is the best way to distinguish normal pregnancy discomfort from something more serious? Keep track of your concerns (try writing them down in a daily journal) and contact your doctor if you notice an increase in frequency or intensity for any of the ovarian cancer symptoms listed above.
Screening and Early Detection
Only a qualified medical professional can diagnose ovarian cancer. If your doctor recommends a screening procedure, they will likely perform a physical exam. Ovarian tumors may not always be felt, so your doctor may also order a blood test to check for the presence of CA 125 tumor markers (the markers tied to ovarian cancer.) Levels of these markers can fluctuate for a variety of reasons, which means even the blood test is not an entirely reliable method for getting an ovarian cancer diagnosis.3
The next step is to perform imaging tests to check for tumors and measure their size. Depending on how far along you are in your pregnancy, your doctor may order a transvaginal ultrasound or a pelvic MRI.3 If a tumor or mass is discovered, your doctor will perform a biopsy of the tissue and examine it in a lab. A biopsy is the only truly reliable way to diagnose ovarian cancer.3
Treatment Options for Ovarian Cancer During Pregnancy
It is possible for a pregnant woman to undergo cancer treatment and retain her fertility if the cancer is diagnosed at an early stage (IA to IIC.) If the cancer is diagnosed before major metastasis (a point at which the cancer spreads to other parts of the body), your doctor may perform a unilateral salpingo-oophorectomy, leaving the ovary and fallopian tube on the opposite side of the body to preserve fertility.2
Chemotherapy is never offered as a treatment option for women who are in their first trimester. There are multiple studies that have shown a correlation between chemotherapy and serious birth defects and miscarriage when given during the first trimester.2 Although there is considerably less risk to the baby in the second or third trimesters, the risk for long-term or teratogenic effects is still present.2 If at all possible, your doctor will likely postpone chemotherapy treatment until after you give birth.
Surgery is another route that may be taken for ovarian cancer treatment during pregnancy. Conservative surgery may be performed in the 16th to 20th gestational week, and full debulking surgery (surgery that removes all visible tumors and problem areas) may be scheduled after birth, except in special cases in which the mother’s or fetus’s life is in jeopardy.2
Radiation therapy is generally considered too dangerous for women who are pregnant. Studies have shown that the radiation from high-powered X-rays has the power to harm a fetus during any trimester.2
There is no evidence to support the theory that becoming pregnant can increase your chances of developing ovarian cancer. In fact, women who have carried pregnancies to term before the age of 30 may have a decreased lifetime risk for developing ovarian cancer.2
Factors that can increase your risk of developing ovarian cancer include4:
- Having a family history of ovarian cancer, breast cancer, or colorectal cancer
- Being over 40
- Being overweight or obese
- Having children later or never carrying a pregnancy to full term
- Taking hormone therapy after menopause
- Using fertility treatment
- Having had breast cancer in the past
Prenate® Vitamin Family
This post is sponsored by the Prenate® Vitamin Family, a line of prescription prenatal supplements designed to enhance preconception, prenatal, and postpartum nutrition in women. Talk with your doctor about how taking a daily prescription prenatal or postnatal vitamin could help support a healthy pregnancy and postpartum wellness.