A 33-year-old mother from Minnesota named Athena Krueger died earlier this month, one day after her daughter's first birthday. She had a rare form of breast cancer that was discovered when she was newly pregnant. Krueger blogged about her illness, and her story brought attention to gestational—or pregnancy-related—breast cancer.
"Having breast cancer during pregnancy is very rare," the American Cancer Society says on its website. But the risk of breast cancer increases with age, and more women are delaying having children until later in life.
"It is known that the risk of developing breast cancer increases as women age, similar to other cancers, so if there is a higher number of older women that are pregnant there would be an expected increase in the number of pregnancy-associated breast cancer patients," says Nicole Winkler, MD, a radiologist and a specialist in breast imaging at University of Utah's Huntsman Cancer Institute.
"Pregnancy is not thought to cause or 'trigger' breast cancer but has been associated with more aggressive breast cancer," Winkler says. She adds that the changes a woman's breasts go through during pregnancy may make it harder for her to feel or recognize a lump or other symptom that a doctor should examine, which means gestational breast cancer is often detected at a more advanced stage.
"Delayed diagnosis remains one of the biggest problems with breast cancer in pregnancy," the American Cancer Society says.
For this reason, it's important for pregnant women to pay close attention to the changes in their breasts. "Any new lump in the breast or armpit or swelling of one breast should be brought to the attention of your health care provider," Winkler says. "It is important not to ignore a lump."
And women with a family history of breast cancer will want to be especially vigilant, she adds. The risk is greatest for women who have had a mother, daughter or sister diagnosed with the disease. Women with a family history should bring this up with their doctor—ideally, before becoming pregnant, Winkler says—and have a breast exam. "Treating breast cancer during pregnancy is less ideal than treating breast cancer in a nonpregnant patient."