Postpartum Breast Cancer: The Increased Risk Factor for New Mothers

Research shows that having a baby early in life actually lowers a woman's risk of developing postmenopausal breast cancer. However, in the short-term, the risk of developing breast cancer spikes for new mothers.

Postpartum breast cancer, in other words, cancer that comes about after having a baby, can be especially challenging considering the life changes that come along with a growing family. Given that postpartum breast cancer typically occurs in younger women and considering the physiological changes that accompany pregnancy, it can also be harder for new or inexperienced doctors to detect. Failure to diagnose breast cancer not only can have grave health consequences for the patient, it can subject doctors and other health care providers to legal liability for the harm caused.

The Facts of Postpartum Breast Cancer

Most breast cancers are diagnosed in women in their 60s. This is one reason postpartum breast cancer can be easier for doctors to overlook.

According to the American Cancer Society, approximately 25,000 breast cancers develop every year in women under the age of 45, representing 11 percent of the total breast cancers diagnosed annually in the United States. Of these, around 7,000 are postpartum or "pregnancy-associated" breast cancers.

Professor Pepper Schedin, a breast cancer researcher at the University of Colorado in Denver, detailed pregnancy's complex relationship with breast cancer in a recent interview with USA Today. Professor Schedin notes that in the medical community, it used to be assumed that postpartum cancers were mainly fueled by the role of hormones in pregnancy. Her work at the University of Colorado in Denver, however, shows that inflammation also plays an important role.

After pregnancy, the immune system becomes active in the breast when women start to wean. In a short period of time, the breast shrinks back to normal size, and the extra cells created during pregnancy and milk production have to go away. This means that the body turns on a "remodeling" process similar to that used to heal wounds. Usually, this process goes smoothly; sometimes, however, the natural paring down of tissues goes awry, and a pregnancy-associated cancer develops.

For women who don't breast feed, the same process begins after delivery. Breast feeding for at least six months does reduce a woman's breast cancer risk, although doctors cannot say with certainty what the reason is for this phenomenon.

Failure To Diagnose Pregnancy-Associated Breast Cancer

The natural tenderness and engorgement of the breasts of pregnant and lactating women may hinder the early diagnosis of breast cancer. Compared to a nonpregnant age-matched population, cancers in new and expecting mothers are typically detected at a later stage, with an average reported delay of 5 to 15 months.

Mammography can be conducted safely on pregnant women and new mothers if radiation shielding procedures are carefully followed. However, given that a larger than normal proportion of mammographies in pregnant women and new mothers may be inaccurately negative to the presence of cancer due to natural swelling, a biopsy is essential for the correct diagnosis of any palpable mass in the breast.

If you or your significant other has recently had a baby, your doctor needs to be especially wary for signs of postpartum breast cancer. Although it is relatively rare, occurring in about 1 in every 3,000 pregnancies, breast cancer is nonetheless the most common cancer in pregnant and postpartum women.

Doctors who fail to diagnose breast cancer in a timely fashion put their patients' long-term health in jeopardy. The prognosis for breast cancer is far better the earlier the illness is detected, and any delay in diagnosis can necessitate more invasive treatment, or could even lead to life threatening consequences. If a failure to diagnose breast cancer has affected you or someone in your life, talk to a medical malpractice attorney to learn more about your right to recover monetary compensation from any at-fault medical care providers.