After Receiving Lifesaving Cancer Care, New Mom Rejoices in Being ‘Gifted My Greatest Love’
Abbey Bergman was convinced that the discomfort in her mouth was simply a canker sore. She was 27 years old and had been in good health all her life. What else could it be?
Something much worse, she would soon learn.
Over the next few months, the tender spot on her tongue grew more painful. It soon began to interfere with her work as a personal trainer as she interacted with clients. After an especially brutal day working a double shift and teaching eight classes, Bergman came home to her partner in excruciating pain.
“Let’s just go to the ER, have someone take a look and make sure it’s nothing serious,” she recalled telling him.
It was April 2, 2021, when Bergman arrived at the Brigham’s Emergency Department (ED).
“You can get past this and live a happy, fulfilled life, even with tons of physical changes, scars and differences,” Bergman says.
“The doctor pretty much took one look in my mouth and saw I had cancer,” she said. “He said it was aggressive and to start treatment as quickly as I possibly could.”
Bergman couldn’t believe what she was hearing. The shock was so great that she doesn’t have clear memories of the rest of that night.
“Cancer was not something that had ever been on my radar. I was completely floored — really just in disbelief,” she remembered. “A nurse brought me pain meds and wrapped her arms around me. It was very kind, but it also made it clear how serious this all was.”
That visit ignited a rapid chain of events as Bergman and her loved ones quickly sought to understand her illness and treatment options. As a result of the collaborative, multidisciplinary and lifesaving care she received at Dana-Farber Brigham Cancer Center, she is now cancer-free.
“This cancer ended up taking absolutely nothing from me,” Bergman said.
In fact, a beautiful new chapter would soon unfold.
Exactly two years after she first stepped foot in the Brigham, Bergman would return to the hospital for a far more joyous occasion.
On April 2, 2023, at 37 weeks pregnant with her first child, she arrived at the Brigham for a scheduled labor induction. Her daughter was born the next day.
“Being a mother is nothing short of a miracle to me. After making it through the toughest years of my life, I was gifted my greatest love,” Bergman said. “It makes the fight completely worth it. I would do it all over again if I knew what the light at the end of the tunnel would look like.
My Team Was Completely Confident
Two years ago, that bliss was impossible to imagine.
Shortly after visiting the ED, Bergman had her diagnosis confirmed via imaging and biopsy: stage 4 head-and-neck squamous cell carcinoma, which develops in the mucous membranes of the mouth, nose and throat. It had originated on her tongue and was spreading quickly. It would be fatal if she didn’t act soon.
Within few days, she had an appointment with her new Dana-Farber Brigham Cancer Center care team, including medical oncologist Glenn Hanna, MD, head-and-neck cancer surgeons Eleni Rettig, MD, and Rosh Sethi, MD, MPH, and radiation oncologist Roy Tishler, MD, PhD.
From that first encounter, Bergman and her loved ones felt the icy grip of anxiety begin to thaw.
“My team was completely confident from day one that they were going to get me into remission,” Bergman said. “I felt a huge weight lifted off my shoulders just knowing how knowledgeable they were and seeing how much they cared about me. I think if they hadn’t been so positive from the very beginning, I would’ve had doubts about whether I could get through it. But they were so sure — it just translated onto me. I knew that I was in the best place possible to get the care I needed.”
Due to the aggressive nature of her cancer, Bergman would need to undergo surgery soon. Three weeks after her visit to the ED, she was in the operating room.
Over the course of the 10-hour procedure, Rettig performed a near-total glossectomy, or removal of the tongue, and bilateral neck dissection, which entails removing lymph nodes in the neck to prevent further spread of cancer. Next, Sethi reconstructed the tongue using soft tissue and blood vessels from Bergman’s thigh — a fleshier area of the body, making it the most suitable to build a piece of tissue known as a flap. Although it doesn’t possess the same muscular function as a tongue, the flap enables Bergman to speak and eat a normal diet.
Knowing what the surgery would entail, Bergman spent the days leading up to her surgery creating recordings of her native voice.
“On a human level, these details are so gut-wrenching to think about,” Sethi said. “Abbey’s whole journey has been very inspiring and gratifying to see. Her case also reflects what we do so well: true multidisciplinary, patient-centered care. Of course, our first priority was curing her cancer, but we were also very mindful of her quality of life.”
As part of her recovery, Bergman worked closely with a nutritionist and speech-language pathologist while embarking on chemotherapy and radiation treatments.
“When it came to speech and swallow, they were very methodical — going step by step and making sure I wasn’t moving on too quickly and trying something I shouldn’t be,” Bergman said. “They really made sure I was taking the time to do what I needed to do to stay safe.”
Although her speech sounds different than it did prior to surgery, Bergman says she has not lost her voice.
“I’ve always been outgoing and social. I grew up in a loud Jewish family where everyone talks over each other,” she joked. “I thought I would end up being quiet and introverted after all this, but my care team really gave me the confidence to go for it. If I hadn’t had their support, I know I wouldn’t be as comfortable speaking as I am today.”
Elaine Burke, MS, CCC-SLP, senior speech-language pathologist, said it was humbling to witness such tremendous dedication and optimism.
“Abbey is a very special patient who will always stand out in my mind,” Burke said. “During swallowing therapy, I gave her many recommendations and challenges to help her get back to the least-restrictive diet. Abbey always came through with positive results, no matter how frustrating and laborious it was for her to upgrade her diet. I was so proud of her hard work. We shared tears and joy as we worked together.”
In the coming months, testing would confirm that the team had achieved their goal: Bergman was in remission. The compassion her care team demonstrated was unlike anything Bergman says she has experienced in a health care setting.
“It was so clear how much they cared about me. They really took the time to get to know me and really weren’t treating me as a patient passing by,” she said. “From the second I met them, they held me up, answered every question I had, reassured me when I needed it and were honest about what to expect. Even to this day, everyone’s hugging each other. There’s so much love on my team.”
A Joyous Surprise
Women with cancer who wish to have children in the future are often advised to pursue fertility preservation, also known as embryo or egg freezing, prior to undergoing radiation or chemotherapy because some cancer treatments can affect hormones or organs involved in fertility and pregnancy.
Bergman says she always knew she wanted to become a mom, but the severity of her disease put her in a difficult position: Does she risk letting the cancer spread while taking the time to pursue egg freezing?
“They would have to retrieve the eggs from both ovaries at once because of how fast everything was happening, and it would’ve been so much more trauma on my body that we ended up not pursuing it,” she said. “Along with all these other physical changes, my partner and I had to accept the fact that we might not be able to have biological children, but obviously me staying alive was more important at that point.”
A little over a year later, Bergman and her fiancé were astonished to discover that she was pregnant. After sharing the happy news with loved ones, she made another call right away.
“I made sure my care team knew exactly what was going on, and they started monitoring me from there,” Bergman said.
Yael Hoffman Sage, MD, MPH, of the Division of Maternal-Fetal Medicine, cared for Bergman throughout her pregnancy, which was monitored more closely due to her cancer history.
“One of the things we were worried about due to her particular cancer treatment, which impacted her tongue, was her ability to sufficiently nourish herself during pregnancy,” Hoffman Sage said. “It’s a big job for a pregnant woman to grow a baby. Abbey was already a small person, so our initial concern was whether she would be able to gain enough weight. She worked so hard, had an extremely supportive partner and was 110 percent all in. She exceeded my expectations and did it with flying colors.”
It’s a misconception that women with a cancer history cannot or should not achieve a spontaneous pregnancy, Hoffman Sage explained.
“While it can be prudent to store eggs or embryos because we never know how cancer will affect the body, the truth is a lot of people do get pregnant easily, successfully and with healthy babies,” she said. “In Abbey’s case, her cancer treatment was focused on the head and neck. If she had undergone pelvic radiation, that would certainly change her risk factors. But since she had directed radiation therapy, we were less worried about effects on her ovaries or uterus.”
For Bergman, each day post-cancer — and into motherhood — shines brighter and brighter.
“The message I want to get to as many people as possible is that you can get past this and live a happy, fulfilled life, even with tons of physical changes, scars and differences,” she said. “There’s a way to come out of it as a success story. Keep on living.”