Melanoma during pregnancy: What it means for you and your baby

So many changes happen to your body during pregnancy that it can be easy to dismiss a growing mole. You shouldn’t. Melanoma, the deadliest skin cancer, can begin during pregnancy.

Being pregnant doesn’t seem to increase the risk. It’s just that this skin cancer develops during a woman’s child-bearing years. Today, more women between the ages of 20 and 40 are getting melanoma.

Pregnancy: No reason to delay melanoma testing

It’s safe to get tested for melanoma while you’re pregnant. Your dermatologist will perform a skin biopsy to test you.

During a skin biopsy, your dermatologist will give you a local anesthetic, which is safe to have during pregnancy. This numbs the area so that your dermatologist can remove the suspicious spot — or part of it.

While this test is safe during pregnancy, you should still tell your dermatologist that you’re pregnant. Knowing will allow your dermatologist to take necessary precautions if other tests or treatment is needed.

Does one mole look different from the rest? Is a spot on your skin growing, bleeding, or changing in any way? Even while pregnant, it’s essential to see a dermatologist if you notice any changes.
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If the spot is melanoma, the earlier this cancer is found and treated, the better the prognosis for you and your baby. Melanoma can spread quickly.

Melanoma can be treated safely during pregnancy

When the cancer is caught early, a pregnant woman typically receives the same treatment as anyone else. In the early stages, treatment involves getting a local anesthetic so that your dermatologist can remove any remaining melanoma along with a section of normal-looking skin. This is the same anesthetic used during the skin biopsy, so it’s safe to have while you’re pregnant.

If the melanoma has grown deep, the cancer may have spread. Testing to find out becomes more difficult when you’re pregnant. Your dermatologist will explain the risks and benefits of the recommended testing.

Treatment options for advanced melanoma will be more limited. One treatment that may be suggested is interferon. Treating pregnant women who have advanced melanoma with injections of interferon appears to be safe.

Radiation treatments may also be an option, but these are usually limited to the head and neck. Giving a pregnant woman radiation therapy in the pelvic area can cause birth defects.

If the cancer spreads to the mother’s brain, treatment is usually performed without delay.

Can a baby be born with melanoma?

This is rare. Even when the mother has stage IV melanoma, meaning the cancer has spread and is in the most-advanced stage, a baby is rarely born with melanoma.

While rare, a baby can be born with melanoma. This cancer is one of the few cancers that can cross the placenta. If the mother has advanced cancer, the placenta can be checked for melanoma when the baby is born.

When melanoma is found in the placenta, the child should be under the care of a dermatologist, who can watch for signs of cancer.

Can a mother breastfeed if she had melanoma while pregnant?

If you had melanoma while pregnant and it was successfully treated, breastfeeding is usually fine.

If you are treating the melanoma after the birth of your baby, you should definitely check with your dermatologist or obstetrician before breastfeeding. Medicines pass into a mother’s milk. Some, like those used in chemotherapy, can be very harmful to your child.

Follow up essential after having melanoma

Melanoma can return after treatment. If it does, it’s most likely to return within 2 to 3 years of your first treatment. It can return later, though. You also have a higher lifetime risk of getting another melanoma.

Your dermatologist will tell you how often you should return for follow-up appointments. It’s very important to keep these follow-up appointments. The sooner you find a returning or new melanoma, the better your prognosis.

Additional related resources

Detect skin cancer
Learn how to examine your skin for signs of skin cancer by watching this video.

Body mole map
Download this document so that you can keep track of the size, shape, and location of your moles.


References
Basta P, Bak A, et al., “Cancer treatment in pregnant women.” Contemp Oncol (Pozn). 2015; 19(5): 354–360.

Leachman SA, Jackson R, et al. “Management of melanoma during pregnancy.” Dermatol Nurs. 2007;19(2):145-152,161.

Tellez A, Rueda S, et al. “Risk factors and outcomes of cutaneous melanoma in women less than 50 years of age.” J Am Acad Dermatol. 2016 Apr;74(4):731-8.