Few neoplastic diseases can equal the amazing complexity and sheer perversity of carcinoma of the breast. No doubt as many decades of research lie ahead in its study as already have passed. Clinicians have long appreciated the special relationship of the disease to gestation. Diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer during pregnancy represent only a small part of this fascinating relationship. Although indispensable as research tools, animal models pertain to the human disease only in limited, ill-defined ways. The etiology of human breast cancer remains unclear; chemical, viral, hormonal, genetic, and immunologic theories have all been put forward as possibilities. Although gestation clearly alters both the initiation and growth of mammary tumors, its exact role in the various theoretical considerations remains a mystery. The obstetrician-gynecologist holds an important front-line position in the war against breast cancer, as does any provider of primary care to women, and, indeed, as do women themselves. Rather than decrease vigilance during pregnancy, the physician should pursue with extra vigor any breast mass discovered in the gravid patient, when the clinical examination is even less reliable than usual. The finding of a breast mass usually necessitates biopsy. Except for the inclusion of specific pregnancy-related problems, such as galactocele, the diagnostic spectrum of breast masses removed during pregnancy does not differ from that in nonpregnant women. The discovery of a highly suspicious breast mass, or the confirmed biopsy diagnosis of malignancy, in a pregnant patient should indicate the need for referral to a surgical oncologist versed in this unusual problem. The best approach to gestational breast cancer continues to be the team approach, with consultation from specialists in obstetrics, surgical oncology, anesthesiology, nuclear medicine, radiology, radiation oncology, pathology, and medical oncology. The age and general condition of the patient, the extent of the tumor, the stage of gestation, and the informed opinions of the patient and her spouse help to determine the therapeutic strategy. Careful staging not only guides present therapy but also the therapy of future victims through continued investigation. Most surgeons favor operation without delay if cure seems within reach. Mastectomy, with or without cesarean section, can be accomplished without detriment in the hands of a knowledgeable surgeon-anesthesiologist team. By following certain guidelines, the search for metastasis can be conducted safely and appropriately. The clinical situation occasionally may require the initiation of adjuvant radiotherapy or chemotherapy during pregnancy, by experienced consultants. Ongoing studies of tissue hormone receptors and cell kinetics will continue to give insight into the effects of gestational hormones on breast cancer and can aid in the selection of treatment options for the individual patient. Available evidence supports the hopeful opinion that gestational breast cancer need be no worse an affliction than in the nonpregnant patient, if careful diagnosis and well-reasoned therapy are applied. Knowledge and experience are especially necessary in the management of this unfortunate situation, where two lives are at stake.
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Cancer Research