Aliisa Rosenthal had no idea how dangerous pregnancy could be before experiencing a scary complication during her own, which ended up giving her cancer.
Shortly after getting pregnant for the second time last year, Rosenthal, who shares a 2-year-old daughter with her husband, learned in early April that she had a molar pregnancy — a rare pregnancy complication where the placenta doesn’t form correctly and develops into a tumor that grows in the uterus.
Although prior to her diagnosis, Rosenthal didn’t know exactly what was going on with her, she “knew something was wrong with the pregnancy from the very beginning, because my pregnancy with my daughter was like the easiest pregnancy on earth,” she said in an interview during Facebook’s celebration of International Women’s Day.
Throughout her pregnancy, Rosenthal suffered from extreme nausea, which is a common side effect of molar pregnancies.
“I lost 10 lbs.,” she said, adding that even though she was unable to keep food and water down, she looked like she was 6 months pregnant. “I was so sick.”
Rosenthal went on to explain that molar pregnancies produce “an extreme amount” of the pregnancy hormone hCG. “So my hCG level before I had the surgery was 550,000. With a normal healthy pregnancy, the highest it gets would be like 90,000.”
“I think it’s really easy to wave off things that feel wrong to women in pregnancy, because pregnancy does have a lot of weird symptoms,” she said, adding that during her experience she learned how important it is to advocate for yourself.
“I kept demanding more ultrasounds and the ultrasound where they caught it was molar, they actually were like, ‘You don’t need another ultrasound. You’re fine. Your insurance isn’t going to cover it,’ and I demanded it.”
As soon as doctors told Rosenthal she might have a molar pregnancy, she realized that the signs were there all along.
In addition the extreme nausea, she also found that her own ultrasounds looked just like the images she found online for molar pregnancies.
“It started with there’s a baby and there was dark spots in my uterus, and I remember them asking me, ‘Have you been in a car accident? Have you had trauma in your uterus?’ I was like, ‘No.’ And then the dark spots kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger. Until the final ultrasound. They went in and they literally couldn’t find the baby,” she said. “When they removed it, the tumor weighed five lbs. The baby was maybe like half an ounce.”
Rosenthal went on to share that while she “lost a very wanted pregnancy,” at the time she was focused on her own health so much she didn’t have time to grieve.
“I was just scared and there was so much going on that I don’t think I really had time to adequately grieve,” she said. “It’s grief and health scare all wrapped up in one.”
After going through with the surgery at the end of April 2018, Rosenthal didn’t immediately experience any health problems, and since she was feeling better, decided to start a new job in Silicon Valley that July — and on her third day on the job, she got a call from her doctor, telling her she needed to come in for a CT scan.
“I was going through weekly testing,” she explained. “The thing with molar pregnancies, they’re kind of pernicious. Essentially placenta cells that grow out of control and they can [get] in your bloodstream and grow elsewhere in your body. So you have to go through weekly tests to make sure nothing’s growing back and that everything looks okay.”
After doctors performed the CT scan, they called again saying they’d found 17 tumors on her lungs as well as something on her liver — which fortunately ended up being benign —and that she’d need to begin chemotherapy.
“I remember getting the call from the oncologist and I just didn’t even know what to do. I hung up and I just stared out the window and I was just, ‘Oh my god. This could kill me.’ Which hadn’t really … I guess it had been a possibility, but not really a real one to me until I got that call,” she said.
In addition to fearing for her life, Rosenthal was also afraid the treatment could affect her ability go get pregnancy again.
“That was a big fear for me,” she said. “Just, will I be able to have another kid one day after I go through this?”
After going through four cycles of chemotherapy, Rosenthal successfully ended her treatment and felt “euphoric.”
“It was like the world was in black and white for three months, then all the sudden I saw color again,” she shared, adding that she also realized how grateful she was.
“I was like, I have good healthcare. I live in San Francisco. This didn’t bankrupt me. This didn’t deprive me of my health. It didn’t deprive me of my fertility. I have my whole life to live in front of me, and I’m so lucky,” she shared, adding that not all women who have molar pregnancies are as lucky, and can end up hemorrhaging to death.
“I had no idea how dangerous pregnant could be,” she shared. “Nobody told me, ‘Oh, by the way, you could get cancer from getting pregnant.’ I had no idea.”
Rosenthal went on to share that after she completed her treatment she wanted to do “something empowering,” which is how she started raising money for Every Mother Counts, an organization founded by model Christy Turlington Burns to raise awareness and help provide care to pregnant women.
So far, Rosenthal, who has six months of monitoring left to make sure her good health continues, has been able to raise $6,500 for the organization.
“I don’t want to get on Facebook and be like, ‘Oh, poor me. I went through this thing.’ Like, send me cookies, cupcakes,” she said. “I feel strong and healthy and empowered and if you want to help me in this mission, give to this cause. Don’t send cupcakes. Take that $25 and give it to Every Mother Counts.”
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