In the blink of an eye, Michelle Velez went from expecting a baby to undergoing chemotherapy.
In an emotional Facebook post shared last week, the Las Vegas-based news anchor told her fans she was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer caused by an abnormal pregnancy.
“What I had was called a molar pregnancy,” she wrote. “It’s a pregnancy that is not viable — meaning a fetus never formed — but instead of miscarrying, the pregnancy continued to grow and produce invasive tissue.”
Velez goes on to explain in extremely rare cases, this invasive tissue can turn into cancer and spread to other organs in the body.
“That is what happened to me. No good reason … just unfortunate, dumb luck,” she said.
A molar pregnancy is extremely rare, and it’s even rarer for one to cause the formation of cancerous cells, says Dr. Georgina Wilcock, an obstetrician-gynecologist at the Scarborough Health Network and a professor at the University of Toronto.
“Figures are different in different parts of the world. It may be as low as 160 per 100,000. It may be as high as 1,000 in 400,000,” Wilcock told Global News.
“Let’s say it’s one in 1,000 will get a molar pregnancy. Of those, maybe one to five will form some sort of gestational trophoblastic disease.”
The American Cancer Society calls these conditions a “group of rare tumours that involve abnormal growth of cells inside a woman’s uterus.”
The data support these claims. According to MyHealth Alberta, approximately one in 1,500 women with early pregnancy symptoms has a molar pregnancy.
What is a molar pregnancy?
A molar pregnancy occurs when the trophoblasts — the cells that normally develop into the placenta — grow abnormally because the egg has been fertilized abnormally.
There are two kinds of molar pregnancies: complete and partial.
“In a complete molar pregnancy, a fetus never develops. All that develops is placental-type tissue, but even that placental-type tissue is abnormal,” said Wilcock.
“It looks almost like tiny little bubbles of tissue — some people refer to it even as looking like grapes.”
In a partial molar pregnancy, there is often normal placental tissue forming simultaneously with abnormal placental tissue.
A fetus may form, but it’s unable to survive and usually miscarried early on.
Signs and symptoms
In Wilcock’s experience, the symptoms — or lack thereof — are what can make molar pregnancies especially devastating.
“The poor patient thinks they’re pregnant,” said Wilcock.
“Not only do they think they’re pregnant, not only does it mimic a pregnancy, but often, it produces the pregnancy hormone hCG … in very high amounts — like more than a normal pregnancy would.”
Human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG) is a hormone produced by the placenta once an embryo implants in the uterus. It’s also what a pregnancy test detects in urine when you’re pregnant.
This can make normal pregnancy symptoms, like morning sickness, more intense than a typical pregnancy. A patient’s hCG levels can become so high that it can have adverse effects on things like your thyroid, too.
“Their thyroid can become abnormal… and they can present with a fast heart rate, a feeling of anxiety, et cetera,” Wilcock said.
Some women have a higher risk of developing a molar pregnancy.
“Definitely having had a prior molar pregnancy, you’re more at risk,” Wilcock said.
“The extremes of maternal age” can also make you vulnerable to the abnormality. According to the Mayo Clinic, this pertains to women above the age of 35 and younger than 20.
A molar pregnancy can have serious complications and requires early treatment, the Clinic added.
The good news is an ultrasound can determine if you have a molar pregnancy almost immediately.
“The ultrasound is very classic. There’s no fetus,” said Wilcock.
It’s not uncommon for molar pregnancies to end on their own. However, if they don’t, your doctor can perform what’s known as a “D and C,” said Wilcock. This is a procedure known as “suction curettage, dilation and evacuation.”
The American Pregnancy Association reports that approximately 90 per cent of women who have a molar pregnancy removed require no further treatment.
However, as in Velez’s case, some women need chemotherapy to treat the cancerous form of gestational trophoblastic neoplasia. The mom of two has since begun an aggressive dose, documenting the journey on Instagram along the way.
“I plan to be as open and transparent about this journey as I can — because it’s the only way I know how to be,” said Velez.
Can you get pregnant again afterwards?
Most doctors will recommend that you don’t get pregnant for one year following a molar pregnancy.
This allows them to monitor your hCG levels, which can show whether there were any left-behind abnormal placental cells from your molar pregnancy still growing (and not a new pregnancy with a viable fetus.)