“As I walked down the long hallway to the oncologist’s office, all I could think was, ‘This is so wrong. I do NOT belong here. I had a pregnancy, not cancer.’ I was just there to see a specialist about medicine to get rid of unwanted tissue in my uterus. It’s used for many non-cancer related medical issues, but still, being there was unnerving. I sat in the corner of the waiting room so no one would see me. All I could focus on were all the ‘sick’ people around me; some bald, some with hats, some clearly there for a first visit and all absolutely terrified. Again, I tell myself, ‘This is wrong, I DO NOT BELONG HERE!’ Little did I know I very much DID belong there, probably more than half the people in the waiting room. I had stage 4 Gestational Trophoblastic Neoplasia which had metastasized to my uterus, spleen, liver and all over my lungs, and it was spreading fast.
It all started two months earlier with a positive pregnancy test. As a local morning news anchor for the NBC affiliate in Las Vegas with two toddlers and a husband who also works full time, life was pretty busy. We went back and forth about adding another baby to the mix, so when it happened on its own we were thrilled. We felt like it was meant to be. The following Saturday was my sister’s wedding so we decided to tell our parents only, as not to take away from her big weekend. It was so much fun for us to celebrate in Napa knowing we were keeping an exciting secret. That was the last weekend our lives were normal.
Everything fell apart at the 6-week ultrasound, which I attended alone because my husband had to work. I knew as soon as the tech pulled it up on the screen the gestational sac was empty. This was my third pregnancy. I knew what a 6-week old fetus looked like and there was no blinking bean on the screen. Just empty space. My doctor called it a blighted ovum, or an early miscarriage in which the baby never formed. There it was. I was having a miscarriage and there was nothing I could do but sit there by myself and cry.
We decided since it was so early, we would let the process happen naturally. I didn’t want any invasive procedures because I was adamant about trying again. We made a plan to have me return in a month, and off I went to lose my baby in the privacy of my own personal hell. I was equipped with pads and Depends and just waiting for something to happen. I started to have some bleeding but it was never anything substantial. Then the symptoms started. First, I noticed I was extremely fatigued to the point which all I wanted to do was sleep. Then I started having food aversions, and finally the nausea kicked in. It was as if I was pregnant. The bleeding started to increase and I started passing large clots. In fact, the first time a substantial bleed happened, I was standing on the news set during a live broadcast. The next time it happened I was at Target. Later that night, I was lying on my bed and I started gushing so heavily, within five seconds my entire bathroom was covered in blood. It looked like a murder scene. It was horrifying and I was VERY confused. Was I having a miscarriage or was I pregnant after all? There were signs of miscarriage, but also rapidly increasing symptoms of pregnancy. What the hell was going on? I started to wonder if I was going crazy.
‘How do you feel?,’ was the very first thing my doctor asked when he walked into the room. I had gone back to have another ultrasound and after taking just one look at the results, he saw the same thing I did. An empty sac on the left, and a grape-like cluster on the right. I told him I felt terrible and he said, ‘Well that’s because you’re not having a miscarriage, you actually have a molar pregnancy.’
My doctor explained instead of miscarrying, the placenta from my abnormal pregnancy continued to grow and started producing invasive tissue. Molar pregnancies are a rarity that occur in every one in 1000 pregnancies and in most cases can be easily treated with a surgical procedure to clear out the uterus. However, in some VERY rare cases they can result in a form of cancer, and that’s why we needed to treat it ASAP. The reason I was so sick was because molar pregnancies cause the pregnancy hormone, HCG, to spike to astronomical levels. At that point in my pregnancy, my HCG should have been around 25,000. The day of my surgery, it was 800,000. It was like being pregnant with five babies at once. My doctor looked at me and said, ‘You’re not crazy, you really are sick because your body thinks you’re VERY pregnant.’
The D&C brought instant relief because the tissue had been cleared out. The plan was to test my blood every week until the HCG was back to zero. Then, for a year, I would test monthly to ensure it stays at zero. That was the part I was most upset about, because I could not try for another baby for a whole year. I was crushed, but it’s the only way to ensure the HCGs stay at zero. The first week after the surgery, my numbers dropped dramatically. Everyone was very encouraged. Unfortunately over the next two weeks the numbers began to rise, doubling each week. You know when your doctor calls you from his vacation in Hawaii, the news isn’t good. ‘I need you to meet with an oncologist on Tuesday.’
Two days later, I found myself walking down the long hallway to the office I didn’t belong in, meeting with doctors I had never met, and talking about cancer. Again, I was alone. They told me at that point we were not calling it anything but a ‘complete molar pregnancy’ because the tissue from the D&C three weeks prior tested negative for any cancerous tissue. This made me feel a little better.
The next day I had a CT scan to give us more information. Again, the doctor’s reassured me this DID NOT mean I had cancer, and asked me to try and stay calm. I did pretty good until later that night when I looked up #molarpregnancy on Instagram and saw a bunch of women with no hair going through chemo. That’s when I lost it. I pulled my husband out of the shower and shouted through breathless sobs, ‘I have cancer I just know it!’ It took the rest of the night for him to convince me the women on Instagram were not me, and I did not know anything yet. The next morning I was awoken by a call from my doctor’s office asking me to come in immediately to talk about the results of my scan. I knew right then. It was bad news.
I can’t really explain what it’s like to find out you have cancer. Unbelievable and terrifying are words which describe it best for me. It’s like being outside your body looking down at yourself but you literally can’t believe it’s really you. The doctors were even surprised, and they told me so. ‘Your scans were surprising seeing the tissue from the D&C tested negative for cancer, but your results show lesions on your spleen, liver, uterus and at least 15 spots on your lungs. I’m sorry but it’s cancer, and it’s stage 4.’ Just like that. I instantly broke into uncontrollable sobs and my co-anchor, who showed up last minute so I wouldn’t be alone, literally had to catch my falling body. I practically shouted, ‘I have two babies, I can’t die, I have to be here for them!’ My doctor replied ‘Well that’s why we need to start your treatment immediately. You do not have any more time to wait. It has to be now.’ My head was spinning. How can I go from being pregnant to having cancer in two months? I couldn’t wrap my head around it. None of it made any sense, yet here I was talking to the chemo nurse about MY treatments. The other question I asked was, ‘Am I going to lose my hair?’ The answer was yes, most likely. That was just as hard as the diagnosis. For some reason it just made it more real. I was supposed to be a mom of three, but instead, I was going to be a bald cancer patient fighting for my life.
The rest of the day was a blur I still can’t fully recall. My husband left work to meet us there, my mom got on a flight, and the next morning I was in surgery having a port placed in my chest. It was so overwhelming and the bleeding was getting worse. Just before I went into the operating room, I had a huge bleed and got blood everywhere. As I was lying on the table crying, I just started to pray. At that point it was all I could do. All the control was out of my hands – this was really happening and I gave it all up to God.
The next day, Saturday, I was admitted into the hospital for anemia from the bleeding and spent the next two days having blood transfusions to get my hemoglobin high enough to start chemo on Monday. It was also the last day I would see my children for three weeks. My in-laws drove in and took them back to Arizona. It was so hard being without them, but it was the best decision. I was in bad shape. I made it through my first two chemo treatments Monday and Tuesday, but by Thursday I was bleeding uncontrollably, passed out on my bathroom floor and had to be transported by ambulance.
I spent two more days in the hospital getting three more transfusions and then we were faced with a difficult decision. My doctor came in and presented us with two options, neither of which were good, but said we need to make a choice soon. We could try to perform a D&C to clear the uterus which would slow down the bleeding but ran a higher risk of complications. If it happened, we may have to delay chemo by 6 weeks. I was already stage four and I couldn’t afford to wait one day. The other option was to continue to bleed while the chemo kicked in and keep coming in every few days for more blood. At this point, we didn’t even know if this chemo regimen would work. We wouldn’t know for at least another week. I couldn’t go on bleeding like this for another week. I could barely last a few hours without becoming symptomatic and passing out. What do we do? Ultimately with a lot of prayer and further discussions with the doctor, we decided to take the risk and have the procedure. The risks were low enough we felt it was the best decision.
Thankfully, we chose right and everything went well. The bleeding finally slowed and I was able to prepare for my next week of chemo. Finally, some good news for once. In one week’s time I had been diagnosed with cancer, hospitalized twice, filled with six units of blood, had another surgery, started chemotherapy and said goodbye to my children. I was overwhelmed, tired and shocked by what I just went through. I hadn’t even had a moment to process it yet. It was just fast and furious.
The good news for me is this type of cancer if caught in time and treated properly, has an excellent prognosis. It is highly responsive to chemo, but since mine was stage 4, I had to go straight to the mac-daddy of chemotherapy. Every week I get pumped with five different types of chemo, including a take home pump of IV meds, and oral pills. The length of treatment depends on the HCG in your blood and how long it takes to reach normal levels, which is anything below five. Once you hit normal, you start three precautionary rounds to make sure the cancerous tissue is gone. For me it means 6 more weeks. Once it is complete, I will have another scan and if it is clear, I can officially be declared cancer free.
It took four rounds (8 weeks) for my HCG to hit normal. In that time, I did lose my hair and the chemo has been very harsh …but I’m alive. Not everyone with cancer can say they are expected to survive, but I can. To be honest, it actually makes me feel badly. I wish everyone could be treated successfully like I am, and sometimes I feel a lot of guilt. However, I also know it is out of my hands and I have been given a tremendous gift. I believe this is my ‘why.’ My purpose for walking this journey is to use my platform to bring awareness to the rarity which gave me cancer.
It bothers me every single day most people have never heard of a molar pregnancy. I have been contacted by hundreds of people from all over the world who saw my story and wanted to tell me they too either had a molar pregnancy and/or the cancer caused by one. Many of them said they were going through it alone because they had never heard of it and thought they were the only one. To me, it is unacceptable. One in 1000 pregnancies is rare, but not THAT rare. What it tells me is not enough people are talking about it. Women need to know the signs of a molar pregnancy so they can catch it in time. Molar pregnancies are very sneaky because they closely resemble a normal pregnancy at first. Not everyone has heavy bleeding like I did and every single case is different and unique. Some women get well into the second trimester before it is caught. That increases the risk of cancer and other life threatening complications. If sharing my journey helps even one person, not only through cancer but any life challenge, then it makes my cancer diagnosis a little easier to accept.”
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This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Michelle Velez of Las Vegas, NV. You can follow her journey on Instagram. Submit your own story here and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories.
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