“Fat, bald and crazy” is how Stephanie Hosford would describe herself during the months that she was being treated for cancer while pregnant with her daughter. It’s also the name of her memoir.
In 2007, the current mom of three had only one child — who was about to start kindergarten — when she noticed that her breasts were feeling abnormally sore. She felt a chickpea-sized lump on her left side, and even though she “thought it was nothing,” she decided to get it checked out.
After an ultrasound, mammogram and core needle biopsy, Hosford learned she had triple-negative breast cancer, an especially “virulent” type, she tells PEOPLE.
“I found out on a Friday, and it hit out of the blue,” Hosford recalls. “It’s not in my family, I ate right, exercised every day and don’t smoke. It didn’t make any sense.”
For the next two days, Hosford tried to process the news while also being preoccupied by her increasingly sore breasts — and a late period. She took a pregnancy test at her husband’s suggestion, and it was positive.
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“I wanted to be so happy about it because we had been trying for a long time, but why now?” she remembers thinking. “I was scared, mad, in denial, very confused. I didn’t know what to do.”
The same day, Hosford had a surgical consult regarding the other big thing going on with her body. The oncologist said she’d have to terminate her pregnancy. “I was devastated. I had a feeling it wasn’t good news, but I didn’t want that.”
Next, the couple visited two more experts, both of whom gave the same advice: end the pregnancy. Still Stephanie soldiered on, looking for a someone who could better understand her deep desire for a baby. She found her solution in Dr. I. Benjamin Paz at the City of Hope National Medical Center in Duarte, California.
About 11 years ago, the medical community didn’t know much about the effects of chemotherapy on pregnancy, which is why so many people were “afraid to risk it,” Hosford explains. But Dr. Paz and City of Hope had done it before. (In fact, he’s treated one to two pregnant patients with breast cancer every year since.)
“I asked [Dr. Paz] when’s the best time to terminate, and that’s when he said, ‘You don’t have to,’ ” Hosford shares. “At first I was completely incredulous, and my husband didn’t believe it either, but this guy is saying that maybe there’s a chance. That was probably the first time I smiled in weeks. I remember driving home from that appointment and had a little spark of hope. That night I took my first prenatal vitamin.”
Dr. Paz made his decision, he tells PEOPLE, because “women with pregnancy [and breast cancer] do not have a worse prognosis than women without pregnancy if you take all the factors, like their stage and age, into account.”
“Surgery and chemotherapy are safe during the second trimester and up until a month before delivery,” he explains. “It doesn’t leave a permanent impact on the kid.”
When chemo works as a treatment, it successfully kills cancer cells and normal cells, with only the normal cells regenerating. The fetal cells come back in much the same way as the mom’s.
So Hosford endured four rounds of chemotherapy during her pregnancy, and after giving birth to her daughter, she went through four more.
“Emotionally the chemo took a toll on me more than physically,” Hosford says. “Somehow your body knows you have to be strong enough for this baby.” The treatments post-pregnancy were much more uncomfortable, she adds.
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Hosford gave birth with no complications in May 2008. Her daughter wasn’t premature, nor did she have a low birth weight, two of the more common side effects of chemo during pregnancy.
“We had our matching hats because we were both bald,” Hosford says, laughing.
At home, the Hosfords also had their 6 year-old son, as well as another young daughter they officially adopted in 2008 (they had started the adoption process a few years earlier after struggling to have a second baby naturally).
“I went from one child to three pretty quickly,” Hosford recalls. “All of it together was exhausting, but it was also really good.”
After finishing chemo, Hosford was given the option of radiation, but instead she chose a double mastectomy with reconstruction. “I eventually recovered from that too, and now we’re all our happy party of five,” the mom says.
Now, Hosford’s oldest son is 17, her middle daughter is 12 and her youngest is 10. While their mom’s cancer battle is part of their story — “It’s how our family came to be,” Hosford explains — it’s not the family’s “current reality” anymore.
“As time goes on, there are other things that are more pressing,” Hosford says. “You go back to your old self. It’s not bad to worry about little, stupid stuff in life. It’s a gift. To me, it means you’re not dealing with something a lot bigger.”