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Pregnant, with Cancer

How to Cope with the Emotional Impact of Diagnosis

by Christine M. Bylewski, LCSW-R

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A diagnosis of cancer while pregnant is one of the most confusing emotional experiences for a woman. The juxtaposition of new life in the face of this diagnosis simply does not seem possible at a time when tremendous joy and expectation are the norm. Pregnancy is usually accompanied by a myriad of reactions: Will it be a boy or a girl? Will it be healthy? Whom will this baby resemble? What kind of personality will this child have?

When the word cancer is introduced into the equation, the questions change dramatically: What will I do? Do I have options? Can I be treated? Will I survive? Will the treatment harm my baby? How could this be happening to me? These are the questions that women typically ask themselves at this crucial moment.

When a healthy pregnant woman learns she has cancer, it may seem inconceivable to her that a body supporting a new life can simultaneously be hosting a life-threatening disease. Fear and panic can emotionally paralyze her. How, then, do you cope with a cancer diagnosis during pregnancy?

Communication is essential to navigating any decision-making process. A psychotherapist can facilitate a discussion about this difficult subject. Being able to talk about your diagnosis with your obstetrician, and eventually an oncologist, can advance your plan of action, thereby diminishing feelings of emotional upheaval. The necessary ingredients for a successful outcome are to verbalize fears, evaluate and weigh options, and mindfully decide on a plan.

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Christine Bylewski

Cancer is a disease that affects all family members who love and care about an expectant woman. A spouse’s reaction, as well as the reactions of parents to a daughter’s diagnosis, can have an influence on a mother-to-be. Positive support can strengthen your emotional resilience, contributing to physical strength and perseverance through the treatment process. Although pregnancy with cancer remains relatively uncommon, the reaction of loved ones is something that you must learn to manage. How do you explain the unexplainable? It is normal to search for an answer even when presented with this conundrum.

If you have other children, you must deal with another set of issues: How do I tell my children? What do I tell my children and when? Having the physical and emotional stamina required to respond to these questions is another compounding factor.

Cancer during pregnancy is counter-intuitive. One pregnant woman in every 1,000 will unfortunately find herself in this perplexing position. Although it is a challenging journey, many women have found solutions and survived. Women can be treated successfully through surgery and chemotherapy, carry babies to term, and give birth to healthy babies. What was once feared as a total impossibility and unimaginable hurdle is amazingly overcome. There is life after cancer, and the joy and pleasure of motherhood has even more profound significance following an unpredictable nine-month drama.

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Christine Bylewski, a licensed clinical social worker, is the co-chair of Hope for Two … The Pregnant with Cancer Network. She also facilitates a bimonthly support group for men and women with metastatic breast cancer. A former clinical assistant professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo School of Social Work, she resides with her family in Amherst, NY.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, November/December 2010.