By Bayan Raji, Staff Writer
Keisha Huse was still adjusting to life as a new mom when she began to notice pains in her stomach. The first time, the pain lasted for an hour and didn't return for several weeks. But by the time her daughter was three months old, Huse was feeling the pains daily.
Her friend had a similar ache after childbirth that ended up being kidney stones, so Huse thought that might be her problem as well. But she hadn't completely stopped bleeding after giving birth, which led her doctor to believe the pain had another source.
"The doctor asked me if there was any way I could be pregnant, and I said it wasn't likely," Huse says. "But, he had me take a pregnancy test, and it came back positive."
Molar pregnancy discovered
Close to her six-week prenatal checkup, the pain worsened. Huse went to the emergency room, thinking something was wrong with her pregnancy. An ultrasound revealed Huse had a molar pregnancy that had to be removed.
In a molar pregnancy, grape-like cysts grow in the uterus after conception. The cysts usually contain tissue from the placenta and occasionally tissue from an embryo that did not develop.
Molar pregnancies are rare, especially after live, healthy births. They are benign but sometimes develop into malignant tumors. They generally secrete the pregnancy hormone, human chorionic gonadotropin, which is why her doctor thought Huse was pregnant.
Cancer is surprise diagnosis
After the molar pregnancy was removed, Huse thought the ordeal was over. But before she left the hospital, the doctor called her in for a private discussion.
"A routine chest X-ray for admission showed nodules in my lung," Huse says. "I had a rare type of cancer called choriocarcinoma that had spread to my liver and lungs. To go from thinking you were pregnant to being told you have cancer -- with a 3-month-old baby at home -- was a shock."
Because one of her classmates from high school was treated for cancer at M. D. Anderson, Huse, who lives in Wichita Falls, Texas, more than 300 miles from Houston, decided to go there as well.
"I told the doctor I wanted a referral to M. D. Anderson," she says. "This condition is rare, and I wanted to see people who deal with it a lot."
Self-image is clipped
Before she started treatment, Huse faced an emotional struggle. She feared losing her hair, which had been long for years and which she considered one of her best attributes, during chemotherapy.
Knowing she probably faced its loss, she cut it to chin-length before she left home. But even with that pre-emptive move, she felt she was losing her identity when hair fell out. The hospital provided her with a wig, but it took some time to feel comfortable in it.
"I was known for my hair," Huse says. "For me, losing it took away my womanhood. I didn't feel pretty, and that was hard to deal with emotionally."
Treatment takes a toll
During the three months Huse was treated at M. D. Anderson, her mother, who also lives in Wichita Falls, stayed with relatives in Louisiana and kept the baby. Huse drove the two hours to visit when she could, but being away from her baby was difficult.
Her chemotherapy routine alternated each week between once-a-week, three-hour treatments and three-day hospital stays. She got a break only when her white blood cell count was too low to receive chemotherapy.
Although she responded well to treatment, Huse grew tired of being far from home and her family. She requested that her care be transferred closer to Wichita Falls, where she continued to receive chemotherapy for another year. During this time, she came to M. D. Anderson periodically for check-ups.
"After the transfer, chemotherapy took a different toll on my body," she says. "I was nauseated all three days each time I was in the hospital. I'd get too weak to even move."
She feels a new take on motherhood
Now 22, Huse has been cancer-free for more than a year. She believes her take on motherhood is quite different from what it would have been had she not gotten cancer. Her cancer and treatment affected her ability to bond and play with her new baby in the ways she once dreamed.
"I've always wanted a baby, and it was really hard to think that I wouldn't be there for her or watch her grow up," Huse says. "I learned to appreciate her more. I enjoy the smaller things more than I probably would have if I hadn't experienced this."
Experience brings strength
Huse says cancer helped her conquer a phobia of hospitals and doctors. Now, she hopes to be a pediatric nurse one day.
"When I had cancer, I had to be a strong person," she says. "If I showed a sign of weakness, it worried my mom. I didn't want my baby to see me scared either. Now I think I'm much stronger."
Q&A: Gestational Trophoblastic Cancer
Choriocarcinoma (Medline Plus)
Gestational trophoblastic tumors treatment (National Cancer Institute)
Gestational trophoblastic disease (M. D. Anderson)
Department of Gynecologic Oncology (M. D. Anderson )
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