Cancer during pregnancy is very rare indeed. If an ob/gyn was to manage 250 deliveries a year, every year for 25 years, they are likely to see just one or two cases in that time.
In the United States, it is estimated that around one in every 1,000 pregnant women are diagnosed with some form of cancer. This is the equivalent of approximately 3,500 women in the US each year.
Many cancers become more likely as a person ages, and it is thought that as women delay their childbearing until later in life, the frequency of pregnant women with cancer is likely to increase.
The primary challenge of treating a pregnant woman is during the first trimester when the fetus is still developing and is particularly vulnerable to damage as a result of radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and other cancer treatments. Even some diagnostic procedures may present the potential for harm to the fetus and should be used with caution if at all.
Many drugs have been determined to be safe for the fetus in the second and third trimesters. Long-term studies have found that, apart from a slightly elevated risk of premature birth and a lower birth weight, children who were born to women receiving certain cancer drugs and treatments were unaffected by their mother's treatment.
14 Baby Saved Her Mom
Halfway through her pregnancy, Kim Vaillancourt began suffering from nausea, vomiting and a severe headache. Normally she would have just thought she had a bug and slept it off but because she couldn’t keep any food down, she was worried for her baby so she went for a check-up.
This check-up resulted in her being rushed to surgery to have two tumors removed from her brain, one at the front and one close to the brain stem.
The couple had only completed the adoption of three daughters on December 23 when they found out about the cancer on Dec 27.
Kim's form of cancer, glioblastoma is the most common and aggressive form of brain cancer. It causes fast growing tumors to begin to reappear within eight to 12 weeks and Kim has been undergoing MRIs every two weeks but has refused any other treatment, and hopes to resume treatment two weeks after the birth of their child.
13 A Double Tragedy
Kathy Taylor was diagnosed with melanoma late in August when she was already 26 weeks pregnant with her sixth child. As cancer spread around her body, Kathy refused immediate treatment because she was concerned about the effect it might have on her unborn child despite the fact she was told she might only have days to live.
After holding as long as possible, Kathy agreed to deliver her baby when her own liver began to fail, and had a baby boy, Luke. Doctors delivered Luke, who was a tiny 1 pound and 15 ounces and told the family Kathy had about a day to live.
Two weeks later Luke died in the NICU from an infection, but Kathy continued to defy the doctor's predictions and lived until New Year's Eve before finally succumbing to her illness.
12 Ashley Saved Her Son
Having been told she would not be able to have children because of her endometriosis, Ashley Gayle-Boothe and her husband Scott were overjoyed to discover she was pregnant with their child.
Two weeks after discovering she was pregnant Ashley was applying stretch mark cream and found a lump in her breast. A biopsy showed the mom-to-be had cancer in her left breast, muscle and lymph nodes.
Ashley underwent a radical modified mastectomy that included the taking of all breast tissue, lymph nodes and muscle in the hope of removing all of the cancer, and ten weeks later when she was well clear of the first trimester she began chemotherapy with drugs that were shown to be safe for the baby.
At 32 weeks gestation baby Scott was born and eventually went home with his mom who began receiving stronger chemo, radiation therapy and a had a full mastectomy.
Unfortunately, Ashley succumbed to her cancer six months after the birth of her son who was born healthy and is doing well.
11 A Shock At Twenty Weeks
A week after watching their unborn daughter during her 20-week ultrasound, Victoria Webster and her husband Martyn discovered the mom-to-be was suffering from myeloid leukemia - a life-threatening cancer of the white blood cells.
Doctors said that urgent treatment was needed to save her life but that treatment was unsafe at any stage of pregnancy and could cause serious harm to their unborn child. Victoria refused to abort their baby and became so breathless because of her cancer, she was unable to walk more than a few steps and she suffered from joint pain, nausea, headaches and constant exhaustion.
She set up email accounts for their two older children sending them letters and photos for after her death and even wrote instructions for her husband on how to do things around the house without her.
Three months later their daughter was born by cesarean and is a happy, healthy little girl. Victoria went straight into treatment and is currently in remission.
10 A Three Year Battle
Nicola Cockx had been battling cancer for three years, minimizing her treatment in an attempt to preserve her fertility when she finally went into remission. Nicola and her husband Rudy were excited to discover she was pregnant in 2011 but soon found Nicolas' cancer had returned in the form of multiple myeloma – a form of bone marrow cancer which affects plasma cells.
The mom-to-be postponed chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant in case either affected the unborn child. After baby Harriet was born by emergency caesarean section in June 2012 Nicola began intensive treatment and doctors said it was miraculous that she had lived long enough to deliver her child.
Unfortunately, after eight months in the hospital, Nicola was discharged to spend her final days at home where she died of sepsis and heart inflammation.
9 The Only Chance For A Child
Jo and Richard Powell were delighted to learn they were finally going to have a baby after years of trying, but sadly their joy was short lived. A week after learning about the pregnancy, the Powells discovered Jo had breast cancer and it had spread to her lymph nodes.
Doctors explained she needed urgent surgery, radiotherapy, and chemotherapy which would not only damage her unborn child but would leave her infertile. Jo and Richard made the decision to wait and Jo’s chemotherapy was put on hold for several weeks. In the meantime, she had two surgeries to remove the cancer from her lymph nodes and breast.
In the 20th week of pregnancy, Jo began a modified, small dose chemotherapy which excluded any drug that might be harmful to her baby.
When doctors became concerned her estrogen levels could speed the growth of the cancer Jo was induced at 34 weeks. Their son Jake is now 2 ½ and completely unaffected by the treatment his mother underwent and Jo is still under treatment.
8 A Final Word To Her Baby
Elena Furlan was diagnosed with uterine cancer in the first weeks of her pregnancy. The doctors told her that she should abort the baby because the chemotherapy she needed would be fatal to her unborn child. Not only that, but the size and positioning of the tumor meant that Elena would not be able to carry her baby to term anyway.
Elena however, had other ideas. Having already seen her tiny baby during an ultrasound she refused the lifesaving chemo and continued with her pregnancy, proving the doctors wrong when, after a full nine months she gave birth to a healthy daughter, Maria Vittoria.
By this time though, the cancer had spread throughout Elena's body and despite all efforts, she died when her daughter was 11 months old. She left a letter for her daughter, with her partner and told her little girl “We fought like lions and we won.”
7 A Recurrence Of Cancer
When Danielle Janofsky learned that she had a cancerous mole, she had it removed and was given the all clear at every follow-up. She had no reason to think her past cancer would be an issue when she became pregnant, but in her sixth month, she began to have abdominal pain.
Danielle and her husband Max were shocked to discover her cancer had returned but this time it was not on her skin but in her stomach, liver, kidney, and brain. The only treatment was unsafe for her baby so Danielle chose to delay treatment for the sake of her child.
Three weeks later their son Jake was born by emergency cesarean weighing only one pound 11 ounces, a brother for their four-year-old daughter. Jake was rushed to NICU where he was put on a ventilator because of lung disease.
Dani lived for a further three days before succumbing to her cancer.
6 A Double Tragedy
Three months into her pregnancy Heidi Loughlin found out she had breast cancer. She was told she needed immediate treatment but that same treatment would harm her baby, so she was advised to terminate her pregnancy.
Heidi made the choice to undergo a less efficient, but safe for the baby treatment; but after a short period it became evident the treatment wasn’t working. Doctors pressed her to accept the stronger treatment but Heidi held out until her daughter Ally Louise was born by cesarean. The birth was 12 weeks early, three weeks earlier than originally planned.
Sadly this was just too soon for Ally, and she died at the age of eight days old. Heidi wrote to her daughter:"Your brothers will honor you in all that they do, we forever have three children, not just two.”
That is not the end of the heartbreak though. Despite the treatment, Heidi has been told she is terminal and only has months to live.
5 An Early Wedding
Ashley Bridges had suffered from pain in her knee for over a year, being told to just live with it, when a trip to the emergency room revealed she had osteosarcoma - bone cancer.
Doctors advised immediate surgery and intensive drug therapy as the cancer was a particularly aggressive form but Ashley was already ten weeks pregnant.
Surgery removed her knee and the majority of her femur but for Ashley, chemotherapy was not an option, she wanted to save her daughter. She said: "It wasn't a choice to me. It was like this is what needs to be done. She's first. I'm not going to kill a healthy baby because I'm sick….as a mother my job is to protect my kids."
After her daughter, Paisley was born a scan showed the cancer had spread throughout her body leaving the mom of two just months to live so she and her fiancee moved up their wedding date and married with both their children in attendance.
4 A Multi Year Fight
Because of a suspected ovarian cyst, Gemma Nuttall went for her first pregnancy scan at 16 weeks only to discover she had ovarian cancer. Instead of beginning the treatment that might be able to save her life Gemma chose to carry on with her pregnancy and gave birth to a daughter at 36 weeks via cesarean section. Gemma was awake during the cesarean so she could see her daughter Penelope born and then immediately put under to remove the now giant tumor on her ovary.
Six weeks later Gemma discovered that the cancer had spread to her cervix and was given chemo and radiotherapy which was successful. Headaches, tiredness, and nausea followed and Gemma was given the news that she had a stage four brain tumor and the cancer had also spread to her lungs. The family is currently fundraising for experimental treatment abroad in the hope of extending Gemma's time with Penelope.
3 A Surprise Pregnancy
One year after getting married, Emma Johns and her husband discovered she had breast cancer. As she underwent treatment her doctors found further tumors on her chest and then delivered the news that she had incurable bone cancer with maybe two to five years to live. It was during the appointment where she heard this news the doctors also told her she was pregnant. Having been on chemotherapy doctors had told Emma she was infertile so this was a double shock.
The ultrasound proved more shocking; Emma wasn’t ‘only just’ pregnant, she was 18 weeks. Doctors told her the drugs she had taken would have damaged her baby, and she should have an abortion, but she refused and at 36 weeks she gave birth to their son Phoenix.
During her pregnancy, the cancer spread to her spine and hip, and she is now undergoing further treatment.
2 Six Days With Baby
Elizabeth Joice was not pregnant when she discovered she had breast cancer and was treated successfully but was told the chemotherapy she received had left her infertile. So Elizabeth and her husband, Max Joice were ecstatic when they discovered she was pregnant.
One month into her pregnancy, Elizabeth's cancer returned and a tumor was removed from her back. Doctors could not be sure if the cancer had spread further without a full body scan and that would place the baby at risk.
The couple had a choice, terminate the pregnancy or continue with the pregnancy without knowing if and where the cancer had spread. They chose their baby.
Their daughter, Lily Ann was born by cesarean two months early. Dr. Joanne Stone, the director for Maternal Fetal Medicine at Mt. Sinai Hospital, told ABC News. "She said This is worth it. ... I would do it all again to have this child.'"
Following the birth, doctors found cancer in Elizabeth’s abdomen, pelvis, and heart and she died six days after bringing her daughter into the world.
1 The Last Photoshoot
This picture above was taken as the family gathered for a photoshoot, unknowingly a few days before mom Cara Combs’ death.
Cara was diagnosed with stage 4 melanoma when she was 23 weeks pregnant with her fourth baby. The cancer was so advanced and so severe that doctors advised her to have the baby straight away despite the fact that there was only a minuscule chance the baby would survive. Instead, Cara elected to wait to begin treatment in an effort to give her unborn child the best possible chance at life.
Shaylin Combs was born on Dec 5 at 28 weeks gestation and three days later Cara Combs died. Her husband Roy wrote on social media: “She sacrificed everything so her new little one could live on.”
“She had NO idea she would have such complications unrelated to her cancer that would keep her in the ICU,” the photographer wrote.
Sources: IndependantMail.com, pressherald.com, people.com, dailymail.co.uk, her.ie, viralnova.com, mirror.co.uk, lifesitenews.com, liveaction.org, news.sky.com, kidspot.com.au, cnn.com, theguardian.com, theoncologist.alphamedpress.org, cancer.ca, cancer.net