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 finding out she was pregnant with her second child.
Stephanie Rifici, 35, of Cleveland, Ohio, told TODAY that while breastfeeding her son, Luca, the milk often calcified in her breasts, creating hard lumps. They would resolve themselves quickly, however, and she didn’t give it much thought.
However, one of those lumps in her chest lasted unusually long, worrying her and leading Rifici to get checked out by an OB-GYN – where she learned she was pregnant 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, from Cleveland, Ohio, discovered she was pregnant with her second child and had breast cancer within weeks of each other. Rifici initially feared that the cancer treatment would harm the unborn child, but doctors at the Cleveland clinic were able to come up with a pregnancy-safe treatment plan.
“I was very excited but very nervous,” she said.
“A week after finding out I was pregnant…unfortunately received a call saying I did indeed have breast cancer.”
The diagnosis and the news of the pregnancy put Rifici and her husband, Evan Thorkelson, in a difficult situation.
They feared the cancer treatment would harm the unborn child, but her death from cancer would mean that none of her children would grow up with a mother.
‘Some people said, ‘You gotta watch out for Steph [the couple’s first child]. It’s the mom. You already have a son. You want to make sure Steph is there for your other son,’ Thorkelson told TODAY.
“We were so happy that we were able to get pregnant and have another son…(but) we don’t want anything to happen to Steph.”
They were told by doctors at the nearby Cleveland Clinic, one of the nation’s top medical institutions, that it was safe to begin treatment in the second trimester of pregnancy, meaning Rifici would have to wait. .
A Cleveland Clinic expert told TODAY that the mixture of pregnancy and cancer is relatively rare and requires the involvement of multiple doctors with different types of expertise.
Rifici’s second child, Leo, was successfully born last April and is now one year old
“Timing is what becomes very critical when caring for women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer during pregnancy,” said Dr. Erin Roesch, an oncologist at the Cleveland Clinic.
Doctors at the hospital explained that there are effective types of chemotherapy for the cancer she had that do not affect the placenta, thus protecting the unborn child from radiation.
Usually, in cases like this, doctors recommend chemotherapy first and then surgery to treat the cancerous growth, although they opted to reorganize for Rifici.
‘The tumor board met and they actually decided that in my particular case they would do my surgery first so they could remove the tumor from there with low risk to the fetus, being so early in my pregnancy,’ explained the mother-to-be.
“Sometimes going under anesthesia and having surgery can actually put you into early labor.”
Eventually, a due date was set during a rest period 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 feels better.