Unfortunately, yes. Because of the natural changes to the breast consistent with pregnancy, abnormal breast lumps are that little bit more difficult to identify. As a result, diagnosis tends to be late, which consequently substantially reduces the chances of the mother's survival.
Termination of pregnancy does not influence the course of the disease one way or the other:
If radiotherapy is the chosen form of treatment, then the mother will miscarry anyway.
If treatment is surgery only or surgery and chemotherapy, there is no point in terminating the pregnancy. However, surgery may be performed while pregnant and the timing of commencing the adjuvant chemotherapy made in such a way as to allow delivery when the baby can survive without serious risk of handicap.
The various aspects of the disease will be assessed in each particular patient before she is advised on the options. In advanced disease, mercifully rare, where cure is unrealistic, the woman may choose a form of treatment which ensures palliation, as well as continuation of pregnancy.
Should a woman successfully treated for breast cancer be advised against future pregnancy?
Absolutely not. There is no documented evidence to suggest that future pregnancy may trigger recurrence.
Should a woman suspecting a malignant breast lump during pregnancy have a mammogram? Is it safe for the fetus and is it effective in diagnosis?
A mammogram is less reliable in pregnancy because of the changes to the breast. It does, however, have a place - albeit limited - in trying to diagnose breast cancer, even in pregnancy.
As far as the safety of the fetus is concerned, experts agree that the amount of radiation is negligible and the fetus is perfectly safe.
The definitive diagnosis, however, depends on needle aspiration of any suspicious lumps for the cells to be analysed in the laboratory.
It is said that breast-feeding may protect the mother against future development of breast cancer. Is this true?
Yes. Studies have shown that having children confers some protection against future development of breast cancer. This benefit is further increased among those who breast-feed.
Women who breast-feed their children have a significantly lower incidence of breast cancer compared to those who never had children or those who did not breast-feed.