“I was a labor and delivery nurse,” Brier, 34, said. “So, I knew that not everything was rainbows and sunshine when it comes to pregnancy and childbirth.” When her 2018 pregnancy seemed to end in miscarriage, she was devastated, but what came next was genuinely surprising, even for a nurse. “Once I had my bearings, everything got flipped upside down,” she said.
Brier learned that she’d had a rare complication known as a molar pregnancy. As the Mayo Clinic explains, molar pregnancies are usually caused by an atypically fertilized egg and there are two types: a complete molar (where there’s no fetus) and a partial molar (there is a fetus but one incompatible with life). Molar pregnancies require treatment and monitoring as it’s possible a rare form of cancer can develop. Of her own experience, Brier says, “Originally, I went through this grieving process for miscarrying a baby that we very much wanted. Then for it to be like, ‘Surprise, it’s actually a molar pregnancy!’ and then, ‘Surprise, it’s cancerous!’ was really difficult.” Here, Brier and two other women talk about what it’s like to have a molar pregnancy…
Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas
I found out I was pregnant in September 2018. My husband deployed three days later. My first ob-gyn visit was uneventful, but then around 11 or 12 weeks, they were not able to find a fetal heartbeat. It was devastating.
I had a D&C and ended up hemorrhaging pretty badly. My ob-gyn suspected it might be a molar pregnancy and sent off the tissue to pathology to be analyzed. But the pathology results came back negative for a molar pregnancy. My ob-gyn said that because I’d hemorrhaged, I might not get my period for a bit, but if I still didn’t have it in three months, make an appointment.
Three months went by, no period, and I went back in. She did a transvaginal ultrasound and it was grossly apparent that it was a molar pregnancy, despite the pathology report. We decided that the best course of action was to do another D&C and monitor my hormone levels from there. The hope was that this second D&C would get all the remaining molar tissue and then my hormone levels would drop down to pre-pregnancy levels. That didn’t happen. My hormone levels actually spiked after the second D&C.
I was diagnosed with gestational trophoblastic neoplasia. Basically, the molar tissue had turned cancerous and I needed oncology care. A couple weeks later, I had my initial intake at a cancer center. It was weird — I was seeing every doctor in the clinic, like all the med students and residents were in my room. Then, finally, the attendings come in, and they’re asking me all these strange questions. Eventually, they revealed the big surprise: essentially, my cancer had resolved itself. They’d never seen it in practice.
Usually, this type of cancer needs chemotherapy before it goes away, but mine had gone away on its own. I got beyond fortunate. The fact that my partial molar pregnancy had turned cancerous was extremely rare in the first place. With partials, I was told, there’s a 1 percent chance that it turns cancerous. I was like, all these rare things are happening to me, should buy a lottery ticket?
The whole thing was hugely anxiety-provoking. For months afterward, I had to get blood draws to make sure my HCG levels didn’t spike again. I finally got the all clear, health-wise, about a year after I first realized I was pregnant.
I got pregnant again soon after. I was very nervous, especially in the first first trimester, waiting to make sure it wasn’t another molar pregnancy. My son is now two years old, and we’re talking about maybe trying to get pregnant again. But, frankly, the thought of going through that and potentially having another molar pregnancy is really daunting.
Last summer, my husband and I decided to stop using birth control. On New Year’s Eve, I took a pregnancy test and it was positive almost immediately. There’s that trope in movies and TV where the woman takes a pregnancy test and is sitting there waiting and waiting for the results. Since it was positive so quickly, I figured it was defective. So, I took two more and they were also positive. It was an exciting and shocking way to start the new year. The women in my family have had a really rough time getting pregnant, so I always assumed that would be my story, too.
I had morning sickness and was exhausted. When I went to the ob-gyn at nine weeks, they said they were going to do a vaginal ultrasound, which I didn’t realize I’d have at that appointment. The technician mentioned she’d be able to send the photos to me and then we could text them to our family and friends. Walking into that room for the ultrasound, I was so excited. Oh my gosh, we’re going to see our baby. The technician was doing her thing, and suddenly she just said, ‘There’s nothing there.’
As soon as it came out of her mouth, I think she realized she shouldn’t have said it. I started sobbing. My husband cried, too. The technician left the room to get the doctor. It felt like the cruelest practical joke my body could’ve played.
That appointment was my first time at this practice, so I’d never met the doctor before. Thankfully, she was incredibly kind and gracious. She was pretty confident that it was a molar pregnancy, which I’d never heard of. I did blood work to confirm and when that came back, they scheduled me for a D&C. It was hard telling people what happened because no one knew what a molar pregnancy was. When I was explaining why I had to miss work, I just linked to the Mayo Clinic webpage.
I had this fear that once I let my emotions go, I’d never be able to rein them in. So, I was holding a lot back, just focusing on what I needed to do and where I needed to go. When I was in the hospital getting prepped for the D&C, the anesthesiologist came in and gave me her rundown. As she was leaving, she said, ‘I’m so sorry that you lost this pregnancy.’ I just broke down. Waking up from anesthesia after the procedure, I started crying again. The nurse freaked out, asking, ‘What’s going on? Where’s the pain?’ ‘It’s not physical,’ I said. ‘It’s emotional.’
Our friends and family were so great. They sent flowers and made meals and supported us both. One friend texted that he was so sorry to hear the news and that he had been really looking forward to seeing us as parents. That text stuck out to me because someone was clearly acknowledging the future that we’d lost, not just our current pain.
I had a complete molar, so I had this weird imposter syndrome around grieving. I felt like I couldn’t say I had a miscarriage or lost a pregnancy because there wasn’t actually a fetus. When I told that to a friend, she said, ‘But you lost the vision of what your life was gonna look like. I know you have a big imagination and I know you were already planning all the things you were going to do together.’ That recognition was really helpful.
My doctor said that with a full molar pregnancy, there’s a 15 percent chance of it turning cancerous. Fifteen percent hot fudge coverage on your sundae isn’t a lot, but suddenly when the number has to do with cancer, it feels huge.
So, I’ve been going in for weekly blood tests to monitor my HCG levels, the pregnancy hormone that skyrockets in molar pregnancies. It was supposed to get back down to pre-pregnancy levels before I could try to get pregnant again. But then my hormone count almost doubled, so they set me up with an appointment with a gynecological oncologist.
Yesterday, I was given the official diagnosis of Gestational Trophoblastic Disease and will start four to six weeks of chemo. The side effects are fatigue, stomach pain, and mouth sores. There’s a 95 percent chance that once this round is over, I’ll be back to ‘normal.’ So, fingers crossed, it’ll just be a sucky month, and then my husband and I will get to move on (after six months of monitoring to make sure everything stays okay). I’m definitely in the shake-my-fist-at-the-universe stage. But we’re taking things day by day.
My husband and I got married in 2019, and I got pregnant with my son right away. By January 2021, we were ready to try for a second child and I got pregnant pretty quickly. My levels of HCG were a bit high and I put on weight really quickly during my second pregnancy. So, I was panicking a bit, thinking it might be twins.
I went in for my eight-week ultrasound, and there was a gestational sac, but they couldn’t see an embryo. They told me to come back in a week. I was pretty hopeful because this happened with my son when I was seven weeks along; there was nothing and then I came back five days later and you could see the embryo. I’d been so worried, but everything with that pregnancy had worked out, so I tried to stay calm.
My husband came with me for the follow up and I remember the poor tech looked so uncomfortable, like she didn’t want to tell us something. I asked if there was a heartbeat and she just said, ‘No.’ It was crushing.
Afterward, I left a voicemail for my doctor asking her to call in a prescription that would speed up the miscarriage. The next day, she called me back. I was expecting her to say, ‘Hey, I’m sending in the prescription.’ Instead, she said, ‘It wasn’t just that there was no pregnancy, there was actually a tumor in there.’ So, I got a D&C and learned it was a full molar pregnancy. To me, that was actually reassuring, because it meant it was never even going to be a baby.
I got pretty lucky because it only took nine weeks for my HCG levels to go back down to zero. Then my doctor advised me to wait another few months before trying to get pregnant again. When I got the go-ahead to start trying, I got pregnant right away, and now we have a baby girl.
Thank you so much to these women for sharing their stories, and sending a big hug to anyone who needs one today. xoxo
P.S. More on infertility, including three women talking about miscarriage and how to help a friend struggling with infertility.
(Photo by BONNINSTUDI/Stocksy.)