San Francisco mother opens up after rare pregnancy complication causes cancer

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- A San Francisco mother's pregnancy led to her getting cancer. It's a rare complication, that can have deadly results. Fortunately, she survived and shared her story.

Aliisa Rosenthal was in the first trimester of her second pregnancy and was dealing with extreme nausea, weight loss, stabbing pains and some unusual ultrasounds.

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"I just sort of knew something was wrong."

Rosenthal had an easy pregnancy with her first child and was concerned by how unwell she was feeling, but doctors told her that every pregnancy and its symptoms are different.

Rosenthal insisted on another ultrasound when she was 11 weeks pregnant and that's when Dr. Fung Lam recognized a molar pregnancy in the images.

"The placental tissue has this great white appearance, almost like a snowstorm, and that represents swelling and vast proliferation of the blood vessels," explained Dr. Lam, while pointing to an ultrasound image.

Dr. Lam is a senior partner with Golden Gate Obstetrics and Gynecology. He is the vice chair of the Department of Obstetrics & Gynecology at California Pacific Medical Center and is a clinical professor at UCSF Medical Center.

A molar pregnancy is a rare and dangerous complication, where the placental cells grow into a tumor inside the uterus. It can be difficult to diagnose in the early stages of pregnancy.

"I think it really baffled everybody and no one had seen it before, it's so uncommon," said Rosenthal.

"I think this is where experience counts," said Dr. Lam who has been an OBGYN practicing in San Francisco for almost 40 years. "In the United States, it's only 20 women out of 100,000 pregnancies that will be affected. In Asia and South America, that number can be as high as 1,300 per 100,000 pregnancies."

"I'm so grateful, he might have saved my life," said Rosenthal about Dr. Lam. "Unfortunately, the molar pregnancy takes over the uterus and actually my 11-week ultrasound, we couldn't even really find the baby anymore at that point."

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Rosenthal lost the baby, but that was just the beginning of her medical journey.

"I don't really think I adequately grieved because I was so afraid of what was going on with my body."

HCG levels, which is a hormone produced by the placenta, are around 90,000 with a normal pregnancy. Rosenthal's levels were more than 500,000 when she had the molar pregnancy.

So, after her pregnancy ended, Rosenthal had to undergo weekly blood tests. And after months of improvements, Rosenthal's hormone levels shot up again.

"My oncologist called and said surgery is off the table, its on your lungs. You have tumors on your lungs and there's something on your liver."

At 35-years-old, with a full time job and toddler at home, Rosenthal began chemotherapy for the 17 tumors on her lungs-- an even rarer complication of the already rare molar pregnancy. Dr. Lam says less than 10-percent of molar pregnancies become cancer. Fortunately the spot on her liver was benign.

"After I got through treatment, I just felt this overwhelming euphoria," said Rosenthal, who now urges women to, "trust your gut, you know your body and you know when something is wrong."

She is still being screened, but is currently cancer free and has recently found power through sharing her story.

"It feels that when were going through these things that were completely alone, especially pregnancy loss or infertility or female health issues, it's very isolating. I work in tech, in a male dominated industry-- and all I got through this whole experience was support when I opened up about it, so I'd encourage women to talk about it, share what you're going through. The more we can be open about it, the less taboo it'll be and the more we'll realize we're not alone when we go through this."

After receiving life-saving care in San Francisco, Rosenthal felt inspired to help other women. So, she's been fundraising for Every Mother Counts, an organization founded by supermodel, Christy Turlington, that works to make pregnancy and childbirth safe for women around the world.

Rosenthal has already helped raise thousands of dollars and is looking for more support.
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