A Call to Action: Cancer and Maternal Health

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By: Sarah Hodin, Project Coordinator II, Women and Health Initiative, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

According to a secondary analysis of the WHO Multicountry Survey on Maternal and Newborn Health, approximately 2.5% of global maternal deaths from May 2010 through December 2011 were attributed to cancer. However, this estimate may be low since many women, especially those living in low-resource settings, are not properly screened and diagnosed.

A complex relationship

The relationship between cancer and maternal health is complicated, and a woman’s risk often depends on the specific type of cancer she has and when she was diagnosed and treated. Fortunately, with appropriate and timely care, even pregnant women with active cancer can have healthy deliveries.

Evidence is mixed related to the effects of a woman’s cancer history on pregnancy outcomes. A cohort study conducted in Australia found that women who were treated for cancer during adolescence or young adulthood were at increased risk of developing a number of obstetric and perinatal complications. A 2015 literature review on breast cancer concluded that only pregnancy-related breast cancer—not a history of breast cancer—is associated with worse obstetric outcomes.

A number of studies have found an association between earlier childbearing age and higher parity and a decreased risk of breast cancer later in life, but evidence is inconclusive. Subsequent breast cancer risk may be higher during the immediate postpartum period. Some scientists have argued that the incidence of breast cancer during pregnancy will continue to rise as women delay childbearing.

More research is needed

The research on different types of cancers and implications for maternal health is extremely limited. Particular attention to non-breast cancers and cancers among women in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) is warranted. Non-communicable diseases (NCDs) account for almost 65% of women’s deaths around the globe, and three quarters of women’s deaths caused by NCDs occur in LMICs.

If you are conducting research on cancer or other non-communicable diseases and maternal health, please consider submitting an abstract to the upcoming MHTF-PLOS Collection, “Non-Communicable Diseases and Maternal Health Around the Globe.” The deadline has been extended to 1 April 2017.

Read the call for papers for more information >>

Learn more about breast and cervical cancers in LMICs.

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