Written by Michelle Velez, Guest Blogger
Hi my name is Michelle Velez and I want to share my story of how my pregnancy gave me cancer. What happened to me is very rare – one in 40,000 pregnancies – but what caused it is a lot more common and it bothers me that most people have never heard of it.
I’m a wife, mother of two, and local news anchor for the NBC station in Las Vegas. This pregnancy was my third. The baby would have been the family tie breaker. There was nothing I wanted more than to give our little boy and baby girl a brother or sister – the final piece to our family puzzle. We were thrilled. Unfortunately that joy was short lived when at six weeks we were heartbroken to see an empty gestational sac on the ultrasound. My doctor told us it was something called a blighted ovum – basically a very early miscarriage where the baby never forms. 1 in 4 the doctor told me. For some reason that number made me feel a little better – a little less alone in this terrible nightmare. My doctor told me that because it was so early he’d like to let my body miscarry naturally. So we made a plan for me to come back in a month and off I went to lose my baby in the privacy of my own personal hell. For weeks I anticipated the moment, equipped with pads and depends, never knowing when it would happen. But that’s just it – it never did happen. Instead of having a miscarriage, my body started to show more signs of pregnancy. It started with extreme fatigue, then I started to have food aversions and finally severe nausea. I also started to bleed, lightly at first but then more excessively to the point where I was passing clots the size of my hand. When I finally went back to see my doctor, he took one look at the ultrasound and asked me how I felt. I told him I felt horrible and he said “Well that’s because you didn’t have miscarriage, you have a molar pregnancy.” I was dumbfounded.. what in the hell is a molar pregnancy?
Molar pregnancies affect one in every one thousand pregnancies – and happen when the placenta from an abnormal pregnancy continues to grow even though a baby never forms. Invasive tissue will continue to reproduce and if not removed, can in some cases, grow beyond the uterus and spread to other parts of the body. Along with the tissue, the mole also causes the body’s HCG levels to skyrocket to astronomical levels. HCG is the pregnancy hormone that produces a positive pregnancy test and common symptoms like morning sickness, fatigue and food aversions. That’s one of the first signs of a molar pregnancy – high HCG and extreme sickness. My HCG was 800,000 at the time of my molar diagnosis. It should have been around 25,000 at 9 weeks gestation. It was the equivalent of being pregnant with five babies at once. I was as sick as a dog. At that point a D&C is done to evacuate the uterus and then the HCG is monitored until it hits zero. Usually that is enough to remove the mole and you will be checked regularly for a year to make sure your numbers stay at zero.
For me, the D&C worked at first, but then my HCG started to rise and within three weeks was back up again. That’s when my doctor sent me to an oncologist. When a D&C doesn’t work, the next step is a low dose chemo administered through a shot. It’s the same medicine used for an ectopic pregnancy and other non-cancer related issues. Still, being at an oncologist was nerve wracking. I knew in some very rare cases my condition could cause a rare cancer – with the most severe form known as Choriocarcinoma. The doctors kept re-assuring me that at this point I did NOT have cancer because the tissue from the D&C had tested negative. I held onto that with everything because I was So. Freaked. Out. The plan was to have another D&C and a CT scan just to make sure the tissue had not spread. The night of the CT scan I had my first legit breakdown. What if it had spread? What is it was cancer? I looked up hashtags on Instagram and saw women with no hair getting chemotherapy and lost it. My husband grabbed me and said “those women aren’t you!” My doctors and mom said the same thing. It took all night for them to talk me down. The thoughts were endless and torturous.. but they finally calmed me down. I even managed somehow to fall asleep. Good thing, because that would be my last decent nights sleep for a while. The next morning I was awaken by a call from my doctor’s office telling me to come in immediately to discuss my scan results. I knew it was not good news.. and I was right.
I can’t really explain what it’s like to be told those dreaded words “You have cancer.” Unbelievable and terrifying describe it best for me. My co-anchor and best friend Krystal left work early to meet me there because I was all alone that day. My mom was flying in later that night and my husband was at work.. and we knew this was an appointment I should not attend alone. My doctor sat across from us in a tiny room, and while Krystal held my hand and my mom listened on FaceTime, she told us the scan results showed at least 15 legions on my lungs, more on my spleen, liver and uterus and that it was Stage 4 Gestational Trophoblastic Neoplasia – caused by an invasive mole. As soon as I heard that I fell out towards the floor and Krystal literally caught me in her arms. Through my sobs my doctor continued to explain that we had no time to wait and that I needed to start an aggressive chemotherapy treatment immediately. My head was spinning. How could I go from being pregnant to having cancer? How is this possible?? Why didn’t I know about this? Again.. endless questions.
The next week was a whirlwind. I had a port placed in my chest and then got admitted into the hospital because the bleeding got worse. Turns out I was anemic from the blood loss and needed several blood transfusions so I could start chemo. That’s another sign of molar pregnancies, anemia. Four days after my diagnosis I was discharged from the hospital and went straight to chemotherapy. Three days later, after two days of more heavy bleeding, I passed out in my bathroom and had to be transported by ambulance back to the hospital. I needed three more transfusions – six units of blood total. The human body only holds about eight. I also had another D&C to curb the bleeding coming from the tumors in my uterus. Together that was enough to get me stable enough to eventually finish my first round of chemo. All of this happened within one week of being diagnosed. While I was in the hospital, my in-laws drove up from Arizona and took the kids back. They were supposed to stay a week. They were there for three. It was so hard, but we knew it was the best decision until I could get stable. We didn’t want them to see what was happening to me.
The good news about this type of cancer is that its highly treatable and comes with a very good prognosis. The doctors told me with the right treatment they had no reason to believe I wouldn’t fully recover. That’s what I chose to focus on – even when my heath seemed to be getting worse. Once they finally got the bleeding under control, the chemo got its chance to work. And it did. After the first round, my HCG levels dropped by 50,000 to around 2,500. After my second round the my numbers dropped to 55. Zero is what we want. Zero means the cancer is gone. Once I hit zero, I have six more weeks of precautionary chemo to make sure we get it all. Yes I will likely lose my hair, but at least I’ll have my life. Not everyone with cancer gets to say that. Still, it doesn’t make it any easier.
I want you to know about this, because this type of cancer – albeit rare – comes from a pregnancy that by all accounts looks just like your typical normal pregnancy. Yes it’s treatable, but only if you catch it in time. Women do die, because by the time they realize their baby bump is not a baby – but rather – a killer monster, it has spread too far. Again not all molar pregnancies turn into cancer – but we women need to know what to look for. One in 1000 is not that rare – and I think you might be surprised by how many women are affected by molar pregnancies. I don’t know exactly why this happened to me, but I’m going to do my best to use my journey to shine a spotlight on this rarity and hopefully make a difference. Otherwise… what’s the point of all this, right?