A woman’s decision to abort due to gestational breast cancer is popularly termed the “hardest case,” but to pro-life researcher Joel Brind, PhD, that perception is actually the “cruelest myth of all.” Abortion has not been shown to help a mother with breast cancer, nor has a mother’s breast cancer been shown to harm her unborn child. Indeed, evidence has emerged that even the treatment of breast cancer need not harm that child.

Breast cancer is the most common gestational cancer, occurring in about one in 3,000 pregnancies. One to two per cent of women with breast cancer are pregnant.

The engorgement of the breasts tends to mask the appearance of cancer in pregnant women, resulting in delays of five to 15 months between first symptoms and diagnosis. While pregnancy itself is not harmful to the patient, death has been the typical outcome, because treatment has come only in advanced stages. Remarkably, though, abortion leads to much worse outcomes for women.

Between 1931 and 1985, Princess Margaret Hospital monitored hundreds of gestational breast cancer patients. A 1989 study presented outcome findings for 154 of them. Of the 133 women who carried their pregnancies to term, only 20 per cent survived the next 20 years. But during just 11 years, all 21 of the women who aborted had died.

This finding may be partly explained by motivation: patients who are mothers have a greater incentive to live. This finding can also be attributed to the causative link between induced abortion and breast cancer. Under the influence of leftover gestational hormones, and without the naturally moderating cascade of carrying a pregnancy to term, breast cells continue to proliferate, as they did in mid-pregnancy, and may become malignant. In contrast, Brind theorizes that the end of pregnancy offers a “natural chemotherapy” with its signals to the body to end cell division.

The U.S. National Cancer Institute (NCI), which denies the ABC link, mildly acknowledges that “termination of pregnancy has not been shown to have any beneficial effect on breast cancer outcome and is not usually considered as a therapeutic option.” Medical literature began to document this reality 50 years ago.

Thus, physicians do not recommend abortion to save the lives of breast cancer patients, but out of ignorance, many do recommend aborting the unborn child rather than putting the child at risk from the disease or its treatment.

In fact, no damaging effects on the fetus from maternal breast cancer have been demonstrated and there are no reported cases of maternal-fetal transfer of breast cancer cells. Nor does intervention on the mother’s behalf necessarily harm her baby.

Chemotherapy and radiation from diagnosis or treatment are often thought to harm the unborn child. Mammography for diagnosis poses little risk of radiation exposure to the fetus, provided that the mother is properly shielded. Chemotherapy after the first trimester does not appear to harm the baby. Even when chemotherapy is administered during the first trimester, the risk of birth defects can be minimized with the type of medicines administered. Likewise, the later in pregnancy that radiation treatment is timed, the rarer are fetal abnormalities. The death of the unborn child is never warranted because of the mother’s treatment and should not be called “therapeutic.”

Along with this hopeful information about gestational breast cancer, two caveats are in order. First, while there is no evidence that breastfeeding increases the risk of breast cancer recurring or a second one occurring, it is generally recommended that women receiving chemotherapy do not breastfeed and that women needing breast surgery discontinue lactation to reduce the size and blood flow of the breasts. Second, it may be prudent for the breast cancer patient to avoid another pregnancy soon after treatment for her own sake, as earlier detection of any recurrence would be easier without pregnancy, and for future children, who may be at risk if the mother has undergone bone marrow transplantation and high-dose chemotherapy.

Readers needing information about health crises during pregnancy are invited to consult the Hospital for Sick Children’s Consortium of Cancer in Pregnancy Evidence and other resources through www.motherisk.org.

Readers wishing to sponsor research and education on gestational cancer risks, maternal-fetal health and women’s reproductive health are invited to visit www.giannasfund.org.