Mom battles breast cancer while pregnant, shares brave journey, road to recovery

CLEVELAND — Breast cancer affects one in eight women in America, and 85% of women diagnosed with the disease have no family history.

The statistics are surprising to anyone, but imagine being pregnant while battling breast cancer. It’s a battle no mother ever wants to fight. That’s exactly what a mom from West Park experienced.

The journey was hard and challenging, but she came out on the other side.

Stephanie Rifici Thorkelson juggles full-time mom duties for her beautiful boys Luka and Leo, while traveling the world as a United Airlines flight attendant.

Her busy life came to a halt within a week after she discovered she had breast cancer at the age of 32.

“Your world just comes crashing down… Like why, why?” Rifici Thorkelson wondered.

While nursing her then 13-month-old son Luka, she felt a lump. At first she thought it was a cyst or maybe a clogged milk duct. It’s happened before. But this time it never went away.

“I went in, got the mammogram. They didn’t like what they saw, so they sent me for an ultrasound,” Rifici Thorkelson said.

Intensified testing followed in the following weeks, as Rifici Thorkelson grew increasingly anxious.

She then found out she was pregnant with her second son. A real gift. It was something she and her husband Evan longed for.

Two days later, her test results came back that she had Triple Negative Breast Cancer.

The rare cancer affects about 13 in 100,000 women each year, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

“We were so happy and excited because we tried for a baby – and got the news that you have cancer; All thoughts go to your head. How is this going to be safe?” Rifici Thorkelson said.

Safety and carrying her baby were top priorities as Stephanie worked with a team of doctors at the Cleveland Clinic.

Stephanie Rifici Thorkelson

They mapped out a plan to treat the aggressive cancer.

They postponed chemotherapy for the first trimester because it could harm the baby.

They then started treatment in the second trimester with a lumpectomy followed by chemotherapy every three weeks.

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Stephanie Rifici Thorkelson

“Many studies have shown that receiving chemotherapy during pregnancy is safe for both mother and baby. So when she finished chemotherapy, she was able to give birth to her son,” Dr. Stephanie Valente, director of the Western Region Cleveland Clinic Breast Program and medical director of Fairview Hospital for Breast Surgery said.

“It was truly a miracle. I didn’t get sick at all. I didn’t throw up. Not even once,” Rifici Thorkelson said.

With a real support system around her, she battled cancer while pregnant – she lost her hair, but gained strength.

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Stephanie Rifici Thorkelson

“I think it was a little bit easier to have everyone for support,” said Evan Thorkelson, Stephanie’s husband.

Stephanie successfully gave birth to little Leo, who turns 2 in April.

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Stephanie Rifici Thorkelson

He is happy, healthy and thriving.

Stephanie says the little man was a real gift – right there with her through all of the treatments.

‘He’s my little miracle, angel. He’s just — we have a special bond,” Rifici Thorkelson said.

Stephanie admits the fight wasn’t easy, but it paid off.

She cherishes every moment and wants to inspire all cancer patients that they can win the war with love and passion.

“Looking back, it was the hardest years of our entire lives. My son, my husband. And looking back — it really is… I feel so blessed,” Rifici Thorkelson said.

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Stephanie Rifici Thorkelson

Dr. Valente says Stephanie’s journey to wellness — like many young mothers battling the disease — is one of positive thinking, strength, and perseverance.

“These women are amazing. They’re just super motivated. They’re like, ‘Listen, Doc, I don’t just have to be here for my kids, I have to be here for…I have to get them through high school. through college.”We’re here to help,” said Dr. Valente.

Stephanie is officially back to work as a flight attendant, juggling parenting duties with her supportive husband by her side.

She encourages all women to follow their instincts and go to the doctor immediately if something isn’t right.

As for family history, Rifici Thorkelson underwent genetic testing.

Records show she is one of the 5% of women under 40 who develop breast cancer with no clear explanation.

She says this emphasizes more than ever how important going to the doctor can be for your overall long-term health and well-being.

Mom battles breast cancer while pregnant, shares brave journey, road to recovery

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