CLEVELAND — Breast cancer affects one in eight women in America, and 85% of women who are diagnosed with the disease do not have a family history.
The statistics are startling to anyone, but imagine being pregnant while battling breast cancer. It’s a battle no mom ever wants to fight. That’s exactly what one West Park mom went through.
The journey was taxing and challenging, but she came out on the other side.
Stephanie Rifici Thorkelson juggles full-time mom duties to her beautiful boys Luka and Leo, all while traveling the world as a United Airlines flight attendant.
Her busy life came to a screeching halt in a matter of one week after finding out at age 32 she had breast cancer.
“Your world just comes crashing down… Like why, why?” Rifici Thorkelson asked herself.
While nursing her then 13-month-old baby boy Luka she felt a lump. Initially, she thought it was a cyst or perhaps a clogged milk duct. It's happened before. But this time, it never went away.
“I went in, got the mammogram. They did not like what they saw so then they sent me over for an ultrasound," Rifici Thorkelson said.
More intense testing followed over the next several weeks, as Rifici Thorkelson became more and more anxious.
Subsequently, she discovered she was pregnant with her second baby boy. A true 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 form of cancer affects roughly 13 in every 100,000 women each year, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
“We were so happy and excited because we had been trying for a baby—and getting that news you have cancer; All the thoughts go to your head. How is this gonna be safe?" Rifici Thorkelson said.
Safety and carrying her baby were the number one priority as Stephanie worked with a team of doctors at the Cleveland Clinic.
They mapped out a plan to treat the aggressive cancer.
They held off on chemotherapy for the first trimester because it could be harmful to the baby.
They then started treatment in the second trimester with a lumpectomy followed by chemotherapy every three weeks.
"A lot of studies have shown that receiving chemotherapy during pregnancy is safe for both the mom and the baby. So, when she was complete with chemotherapy, she was able to deliver her son," Dr. Stephanie Valente, Director of the Western Region Cleveland Clinic Breast Program and Medical Director at Fairview Hospital for Breast Surgery said.
“It was truly a miracle. I didn’t get sick at all. I did not throw up. Not even once," Rifici Thorkelson said.
With a true support system around her, she fought cancer while pregnant — losing her hair, but gaining strength.
"I think it made it a little easier having everyone there for support," Evan Thorkelson, Stephanie's husband said.
Stephanie successfully gave birth to little Leo, who turns 2 in April.
He's happy, healthy and thriving.
Stephanie says the little guy was a true gift—there with her through all of the treatments.
“He is my little miracle, angel. He is just --we have a special bond," Rifici Thorkelson said.
Stephanie admits the fight was not easy, but it paid off.
She cherishes each and every moment and aims to inspire all cancer patients that they can win the war with love and passion.
“Looking back, it was the hardest years of all of our lives. My son, my husband. And looking back—it truly… I feel so blessed," Rifici Thorkelson said.
Dr. Valente says Stephanie's journey to wellness — like many young moms battling the disease — is one of positive thinking, strength and perseverance.
"These women are amazing. They're just they're super motivated. They're like—'Listen, Doc, like, not only do I have to be here for my kids, I've got to be here for— I've got to get them through high school. I got to get them through college. ' We are here to help," Dr. Valente said.
Stephanie is officially back to work as a flight attendant and juggling parenting duties with her supportive husband by her side.
She is encouraging all women to follow their gut instinct and get to the doctor immediately if something feels off.
As for family history, Rifici Thorkelson underwent genetic testing.
Data shows she is one of the 5% of women under the age of 40 who get breast cancer with no clear explanation.
She says this highlights more than ever how important going to the doctor can be for your overall health and wellness long term.