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Every year, around 2,500 to 5000 pregnant women in Europe are diagnosed with cancer. Most of these women either defer their treatment until their child is born or prefer to go for an abortion. Is that really necessary?

Prenatal Chemotherapy does not affect the Mental Functioning or Cardiac Activity of Children

Even when they decide to carry the pregnancy while receiving chemotherapy, they opt for an early induction of pregnancy so as to cause minimal damage to their child as a result of chemotherapy. However, according to a new research presented at the 2011 European Multidisciplinary Cancer Congress, there appears to be no adverse effect of chemotherapy in such children. Prenatal chemotherapy, does not in any manner, affects the mental functioning or cardiac activity of children. On the contrary, it is the practice of inducing an early child birth that seems to cause the maximum harm.

According to Professor Frederic Amant, a gynecological oncologist at the University Hospitals Leuven (Leuven, Belgium), this was the first study of its kind to examine the effect of prenatal chemotherapy on children of 18 months and above. The results will be reassuring to many apprehensive mothers who are worried that chemotherapy can cause adverse effects on their child’s cardiac activity and cognitive development. The researchers have advised the pregnant women not to delay their cancer treatment or terminate their pregnancy before 40 weeks. The importance of chemotherapy in a woman suffering from cancer cannot be undermined and it does not seem to cause any deleterious effect on the child’s health.

The Amount of Chemotherapy Drugs that Pass through the Placenta is too small to Harm the Child

Professor Amant and his colleagues recruited 68 women who had received chemotherapy during their pregnancy, and examined the children born to them between the years 1991-2010. The children were between the ages of 18 months and 18 years and were followed for an average of nearly two years. These women were suffering from various types of cancers and had received chemotherapy either alone or in combination with surgery or radiotherapy, or both.

The children were assessed for their IQ, verbal and non verbal memory, attention, working memory and executive functions. Their heart function was assessed through ECG and echocardiography. The researchers found that among the 70 children born from 68 pregnancies, two thirds were born before 37 weeks of gestation. These deliveries were either spontaneous or induced.

It was seen that the type and incidence of congenital malformations were similar to the general population. There was no difference in the general health or cognitive development and no cardiac abnormalities were detected. Of the children whose IQ was less than normal, the majority were delivered preterm. According to the researchers, if chemotherapy is given after the first trimester of pregnancy, the amount of chemotherapy drugs that pass through the placenta is too small to harm the child.
It is important to continue pregnancy until at least 37 weeks, and the practice of inducing delivery as soon as the fetus is viable, should be avoided. A preterm baby is more likely to suffer from problems of cognitive development.

The effect of prenatal chemotherapy on the child’s fertility and on the likelihood of developing cancer when he is old is yet to be studied. However, in the light of the above mentioned research, pregnant women requiring urgent chemotherapy are advised not to abort their pregnancy or defer their treatment.

  • “Chemotherapy during pregnancy does not seem to cause developmental problems in children”, EMCC News, accessed on September 27, 2011
  • “Chemotherapy appears safe in pregnancy, study finds”, by Kate Kelland, Reuters, published on September 26, 2011, accessed on September 27, 2011
  • Photo courtesy of 29082546@N00 on Flickr: