Hope for pregnant women with leukemia

Nearly three thousand people are diagnosed with leukemia in Russia each year – among them a handful of pregnant women. Until recently there was little hope of survival as physicians refused to treat them for fear of harming their unborn childre

Until 15 years ago pregnant women in Russia with leukemia faced a stark choice – to have an abortion and begin treatment, or to wait until after giving birth and risk their own lives and their babies.

Many died before giving birth.

Dr Valery Savchenko has been treating cancer patients for 30 years and is the Head of the Scientific Hematology Centre in Moscow. He says that now pregnant women suffering from blood cancer can safely be given chemotherapy.

“Our strategy and philosophy is that we are trying to save two lives, because it’s the only chance to achieve success. If we are thinking only about a pregnant woman, it’s the wrong way because we usually lose two lives,” the Doctor says.

One of Dr Savchenko's patients is 19-year-old Olesya Osina. She had a healthy baby boy just weeks ago by caesarean operation.  

“They said I needed chemotherapy. It’s harmful of course, but they said it wouldn't affect the baby and he’d be born healthy. And he was! After he was born, he was checked for leukemia at a children’s health center – just in case – and he was found to be in good health,” Olesya says.  

Moscow is the center of all latest technologies. I can’t compare my small city of Kemerovo with the capital city. It has all the advantages

Natalya Grebennikova also had her baby after being treated in Moscow. She  travelled 3,500 km  from Kemerovo in south-western Siberia.

“Moscow is the center of all latest technologies. I can’t compare my small city of Kemerovo with the capital city. It has all the advantages,” she states.

Blood cancer during pregnancy is very rare, affecting only about 1 in 100,000 pregnancies annually. Dr Savchenko says nowadays the odds of survival are good.

“We can induce remission in 70 % of cases and so prolong life for one third of all patients. And in some type of leukemia the overall survival for about 80%,” he explains.  

According to Dr Savchenko, around 30 babies have been born to pregnant women treated here, and that all of them are strong and healthy.

Thanks to the developments in cancer care, more and more pregnant women suffering from leukemia are surviving, increasing the odds of saving not one life, but two.