So many changes happen to your body during pregnancy that it might be tempting to overlook an abnormal mole or lesion on your skin. But if you notice something, don’t overlook it. You can develop skin cancer while you’re expecting a baby.
In fact, melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, commonly affects women during the time of life when they’re likely to get pregnant.
The good news is that spotting the cancer early and receiving prompt treatment can improve your outlook.
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How Common Is Skin Cancer During Pregnancy?
Cancer of any kind is relatively rare during pregnancy. Only about 1 in 1,000 pregnancies are affected by cancer, and fewer by skin cancer, according to the National Foundation for Cancer Research.
There’s no research to show the chance of developing skin cancer is higher during pregnancy, but the risk does exist.
In a Norwegian study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, researchers found melanoma was the most common cancer reported during pregnancy, accounting for 31 percent of all cases.
Part of the reason may be age. About one-third of all melanomas in women are diagnosed during childbearing years, according to The Skin Cancer Foundation, placing pregnant women exactly in the high-risk age range.
It's possible this correlates to the fact that pregnant women are more likely to receive preventive medical care than nonpregnant women, which may give doctors the opportunity to spot skin lesions that would otherwise go undetected.
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Is Skin Cancer More Dangerous During Pregnancy?
Nonmelanoma skin cancers, such as basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma, are usually very treatable. The same is true for melanomas that are diagnosed at the beginning stages.
But some research has shown pregnant women with melanoma may face a grimmer prognosis. A study published in the October 2016 issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology found that pregnant women or those who had given birth within the previous year were up to five times more likely to die of melanoma than those who weren’t pregnant, 6.9 times more likely to experience metastasis, and 9.2 times more likely to have a recurrence. The researchers speculated that pregnancy hormones may fuel cancer growth.
Scientists are working to better understand the correlations.
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Should You Get Tested for Skin Cancer During Pregnancy?
You should continue to see your dermatologist for regular skin checks during your pregnancy. If your doctor spots a suspicious mole or lesion, a simple biopsy to remove tissue and test it for cancer is considered a safe procedure.
During a biopsy, your doctor will give you a local anesthetic to numb the area. Then, the dermatologist will remove part or all of the suspicious spot. The tissue is sent to a lab where a pathologist examines it under a microscope.
If your results come back positive for melanoma, you might need further testing to determine if the cancer has spread. Sometimes, a sentinel lymph node biopsy, which will determine if and how far the cancer has spread, is recommended. Your doctor may modify or delay this test because it usually requires general anesthesia, which isn’t recommended during the first trimester.
While most skin cancer tests are safe during pregnancy, it’s important to let your dermatologist know that you’re pregnant so that necessary precautions can be taken.
Many of the testing and diagnostic options will depend on how far along you are in your pregnancy and what kind of skin cancer is suspected. You and your doctor should discuss the risks and benefits of testing during pregnancy.
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What Treatments Are Available for Skin Cancer While Pregnant?
If skin cancer is caught early, pregnant women generally receive the same treatments as anyone else.
Surgery to remove the lesion, including a popular approach known as Mohs surgery, is safe during pregnancy. With these procedures, surgeons typically use a local anesthetic.
Melanomas that have grown or spread are trickier to treat during pregnancy. Usual treatments like radiation, chemotherapy, and immunotherapy may pose risks to the baby.
Injections of interferon appear to be safe during pregnancy.
If melanoma has spread to a pregnant woman’s brain, treatment is usually recommended immediately.
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Will Skin Cancer Affect the Baby?
Although it’s rare, melanoma can cross the placenta and transfer cancer there. But even if melanoma is found in placental tissue, the fetus is rarely affected.
Doctors can check the placenta for melanoma after birth. If melanoma is found, babies are at risk for developing the disease a few years later. A pediatric dermatologist should see the child regularly to monitor for signs of cancer.
How to Spot Skin Cancer While Pregnant
Usually, moles don’t darken during pregnancy, but they may enlarge as skin stretches on areas such as the belly or breasts.
Pregnant women should look for unusual moles or lesions and see a dermatologist if they notice anything suspicious.
Some signs to watch out for may include a growth that:
- Has a variety of colors or changes colors
- Is dark black
- Is asymmetrical (meaning two halves don’t match)
- Has irregular borders
- Is larger than 6 millimeters in diameter
- Changes in size or texture
- Begins to bleed
It’s also a good idea to avoid unnecessary sun exposure, use sunscreen when you’re outdoors, and consume a healthy diet to improve or maintain the condition of your skin.
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