An Ohio mother received the shock of her life when she discovered that a lump in her breast she attributed to breast milk was actually a cancerous tumor, while also finding out she was pregnant with her second child.
Stephanie Rifici, 35, of Cleveland, Ohio, told TODAY that while she was breastfeeding her son, Luca, that the milk would often calcify in her breasts, creating hard lumps. They would quickly resolve, though, and she did not think much of them.
One of these lumps in her breast lasted unusually long, though, worrying her and leading to Rifici getting herself checked out by an OB-GYN – where she learned she was pregnant once again.
A week after finding out she was pregnant, Rifici received the devastating news that she had stage 2 triple negative breast cancer.
,Stephanie Rifici (pictured), 35, of Cleveland, Ohio, discovered that she was pregnant with her second child and that she had breast cancer within weeks of each other. Rifici initially worried that cancer treatment would harm the unborn child, but doctors at the Cleveland Clinic managed to find a treatment plan that was safe for pregnancy
‘I was very excited but very nervous,’ she said.
‘A week after I found out I was pregnant … I unfortunately got the call that I indeed did have breast cancer.’
The diagnosis and the news of the pregnancy put Rifici and her husband, Evan Thorkelson, in a tough spot.
They feared that going through with cancer treatment could harm the unborn child, but her dying from cancer would mean neither of her children would grow up with a mother.
‘Some people said, ‘You’ve got to look out for Steph [the couple’s first child]. She’s the mom. You already have a son. You want to make sure that Steph’s around for your other son,” Thorkelson told TODAY.
‘We were so happy we were able to get pregnant and have another son… (but) we don’t want anything to happen to Steph.’
They were informed by doctors at the nearby Cleveland Clinic, one of the country’s top medical institutions, that they could safely begin treatment in the pregnancy’s second trimester, meaning Rifici would have to wait.
An expert at the Cleveland Clinic told TODAY that the mixture of pregnancy and cancer is relatively rare, and requires multiple physicians with different types of expertise to chip in.
Rifici’s second child, Leo, was successfully born last April, and is now one year old
‘Timing is what becomes very critical when taking care of women diagnosed with breast cancer during pregnancy,’ Dr Erin Roesch, an oncologist at the Cleveland Clinic said.
Doctors at the hospital explained that there are types of chemotherapy which are effective against the cancer she had that do not affect the placenta, protecting the unborn child from radiation.
Usually in cases like this, doctors will first recommend chemotherapy, and then surgery after to treat the cancerous growth, though they thing to rearrange for Rifici.
‘The tumor board met and they actually decided that in my special case that they’d do my surgery first so they’re able to get the tumor out of there with a low risk to the fetus, being so early in my pregnancy,’ the expecting mother explained.
‘Sometimes going under anesthesia and having surgery can actually put you in early labor.’
Eventually, a delivery date was set during a period of rest between chemotherapy sessions, and Rifici’s son Leo was born on April 21, 2021.
She later completed her cancer treatment, and celebrated Leo’s birthday earlier this year, and even plans to return to work now that she is feeling better again.