As a news anchor for KSNV News 3 Las Vegas, Michelle Velez has covered everything from local floods and shootouts to Jersey Shore’s Vinny G’s turn as a Chippendales host. On social media, she maintains a lively relationship with her thousands of fans, posting personal moments with her husband, two young children and Cavalier King Charles Spaniels.
But her post on Thursday was even more personal than usual: It explained that she’d been off the air recently due to her diagnosis with a rare gynecologic cancer.
“What I had was called a molar pregnancy. It’s a pregnancy that is not viable — meaning a fetus never formed — but instead of miscarrying, the pregnancy continued to grow and produced invasive tissue,” Velez shared on both Facebook and Instagram, in a long post alongside a photo of her mother hugging her after her first day of chemo. “In some very rare cases that 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.”
Velez continued that the “great news” is that the cancer is treatable, but that “the bad news is I have to go through aggressive chemo to kill it.”
Her news was met with an outpouring of support, including 1,000 reactions and more than 480 comments on Facebook alone, some from people who had also withstood cancer treatments and wanted Velez to “stay strong,” “rest” and “keep that positive attitude.”
So, what exactly is Velez dealing with, and how rare is it?
A molar pregnancy, also known as hydatidiform mole, occurs in only one of every 1,000 to 1,200 U.S. pregnancies. It’s a type of Gestational Trophoblastic Disease (GTD), notes Harvard Medical School’s Harvard Health Publishing, explaining, “After a sperm fertilizes an egg, new tissues develop that normally form the fetus and placenta,” but that molar pregnancy occurs “when the tissue that was supposed to form the placenta grows abnormally and can form a tumor that can spread beyond the womb or uterus.”
In a "complete mole," the entry continues, “no normal fetal tissue forms. In a ‘partial mole,’ incomplete fetal tissues develop alongside molar tissue. These two conditions are noncancerous (benign) and make up 80 percent of cases.”
The other 20 percent of molar pregnancies are malignant, or cancerous, like Velez’s, and involve the spreading of the molar tissue either locally, within the uterus, or distantly (called metastases).
There are also two other types of GTD, explains the website of the New England Trophoblastic Disease Center at Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women's Cancer Center: Choriocarcinoma, affecting only one in every 20,000 to 40,000 pregnancies, is highly malignant, and can originate from either a molar pregnancy or from tissue that remains behind after miscarriage or childbirth. Placental-site and epithelioid trophoblastic tumors, meanwhile, are even rarer forms of GTD, arising in the uterus at the site where the placenta was attached.
“Molar pregnancies I’ll probably see once every year or two,” Amelia Jernigan, MD, a gynecologic oncologist with LSU Health New Orleans and a communications liaison with the Foundation for Women’s Cancer, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. She’s only ever seen one choriocarcinoma, and underscores how rare these diseases are in general.
“We’ve gotten better at identifying these early and we follow it closely,” Jernigan adds. “So, while it’s scary, if we can identity it and treat it, people can do OK.” Getting an ultrasound in early pregnancy is an important step, she says, because, doctors “are going to be able to tell something’s wrong most of the time on an ultrasound.” And after a miscarriage, “that tissue goes to the lab and gets evaluated. If the lab report comes back and says ‘partial mole’ or ‘complete mole,’ someone’s going to be watching you more closely.”
Depending on a specific set of factors known as a woman’s risk score, she explains — which is taken into account here more than the traditional cancer staging system when making treatment plans — chemo can consist of either one drug or a taxing regimen of five.
“If you don’t hit these really hard up front, they can come back and stop responding to chemo and then become extremely hard to treat,” Jernigan notes. “But the general rule is they are almost always curable if treated appropriately up front.”
Risk factors for GTD include being over 40, a history of miscarriages, and, interestingly, a diet high in beta carotene or Vitamin A, according to Dana-Farber.
Symptoms of a molar pregnancy, according to the International Society for the Study of Trophoblastic Diseases, “usually appear in the second or third month of pregnancy. There may be abnormal bleeding or cramps or the passage of some tissue. There may be severe vomiting, more than in normal pregnancy.”
Regarding treatment of malignant molar pregnancies, the ISSTD continues, “Trophoblastic disease may be a form of cancer but is very treatable with chemotherapy. When treated early with chemotherapy trophoblastic disease has a 99.9% cure rate.”
And that, for now, is the focus for Velez (who was understandably unable to speak with Yahoo Lifestyle because of a medical appointment). “There is so much more to this.. but the important part again.. is that it’s treatable. My spirits are good for the most part thanks to our incredible support system and our strong faith,” she wrote in her post. “I look forward to coming back healthy and strong again.”
Finally, she noted of the photo on her post, “This picture is of my mother hugging me after making it through my first day of chemo. I know it seems sad.. but I don’t see it that way. I look at it as a warrior hug. One step closer to the end.”
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