Young Freehold, NJ woman battles breast cancer twice, once while pregnant
“You have breast cancer.”
Any woman (or man) who has ever heard those words uttered by a doctor must have a wide range of emotions coursing through their body at that moment: shock, fear, fright, confusion, disbelief, and maybe even an intense determination to live.
Now, imagine hearing those four words said to you twice in your lifetime.
That’s what happened to one young woman from Freehold Borough, once while she was pregnant.
Her first bout with breast cancer
In the winter of 2015, newly married Freehold borough resident and Farmingdale special education teacher Rebecca Swamy had just found out she was pregnant with her first child.
She and her husband, Naveen were over the moon with excitement. But that joy quickly turned to fear and uncertainty.
Prior to finding out she was expecting, Swamy felt an odd bump on the top of her left breast. But she said she didn’t think too much about it.
But the mother-to-be did in fact have breast cancer.
She said she was in complete shock because there is no history of breast cancer in her family and because she was so young. Swamy was only 32 years old.
She received treatment from Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, the flagship cancer hospital for Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey. Her treatment was guided by Chief Medical Officer Deborah Toppmeyer.
“Dr. Toppmeyer and her team made Naveen and me feel comfortable and safe,” Swamy said.
During her second trimester, Swamy underwent a lumpectomy to remove the tumor. There was no sign that the cancer had spread.
“The assumption was it was not an aggressive cancer and it was a low stage and it will probably not spread. Everyone felt comfortable for me to continue my pregnancy pretty normally and then have radiation as soon as my son was born,” Swamy said.
Three days after baby Shay entered the world, Swamy began eight weeks of radiation and started hormone therapy.
She said she felt great and continued to live her life day by day.
Swamy’s second cancer diagnosis
Then in the winter of 2019, just before Swamy’s five-year cancer-free milestone, she found another lump. This time it was on her sternum.
“All I kept thinking was this was déjà vu. This cannot be happening,” she said.
But it was cancer. Breast cancer that had metastasized to her breast bone.
The doctors had said Swamy was an unlikely case for breast cancer both times. She shouldn’t have gotten breast cancer based on her history and age. But she did. Then, this cancer shouldn’t have spread. But it did. Swamy had Stage 4 metastatic breast cancer in her bones, all while having a toddler to take care of at home, she said.
Since the area around Swamy’s tumor had previously received radiation, doctors said it could be harmed with more radiation therapy.
Dr. Bruce Haffty, system director of radiation oncology at RWJ Barnabas Health, chairmain of Radiation Oncology, and associate vice chancellor for Cancer Programs at Rutgers Cancer Institute, had a solution.
He used proton therapy, which delivers a beam of energy that can be more precisely targeted than X-rays used in traditional radiation therapy, allowing other tissues around the tumor to avoid extra exposure to radiation.
The radiation therapy required just three visits.
Swamy also said she had her ovaries removed this time around. She went from controlling her hormones and living a relatively normal life after the first diagnosis, to extreme menopause overnight, which she called “wild.”
How did she handle all of this?
Swamy said she credited her awesome support system of her husband, family, and friends for helping her get through these two harrowing ordeals. That, and she just took everything day by day.
“My son is fabulous. He’s smart and articulate and we just explained things to him as they came. He would ask, 'Why does mommy go to the doctor and what are you doing?' and we just explained it to him. He understands that mommy has breast cancer, she takes care of it, and she’s going to be okay because we have all these great medical things that we can do,” Swamy said.
What does life look like now for Swamy?
Today, in 2022, at 39 years old, Swamy’s one-year mark scans revealed she was cancer-free thanks to the help of her advanced therapy.
She remains a devoted educator and mother and is focused on the path forward.
During her bouts with cancer, Swamy said she learned to find the little blessings.
For example, she said her husband was able to stay home with her more when she had baby Shay because she had to go to radiation. His job allowed him to stay home while she went to radiation so she was happy to have that special family time.
“We really tried to take each thing that came and see it in the positive and live day by day. We’re not worrying about the future. Things are changing so rapidly in the medical field. There are always new things they can try. I have a great medical team. Luckily, my body responded to the medications and treatment and I’m doing well. I just try to keep it all in a positive light,” Swamy said.
Swamy said when you see her you would never know what she has been through. She’s a young mom, working every day, living a normal life, all while taking hormonal chemotherapy, getting treatments, and getting scans.
“I just want people to know that if they’re diagnosed, it doesn’t end your life. Your life goes on and you can still be a really normal person and do normal things,” Swamy said.
What has she learned from these experiences?
She said if anyone feels something that’s off with their bodies, go get it checked out immediately.
“Had I waited in either situation, it would be a lot worse,” she said.
Both of her situations are good now because she acted on them very quickly, which changed what would happen to her and how she would be treated and that’s why it was under control.
Try not to project into the future. Listen to the doctors. Take it day by day. Enjoy the life you’re living because you don’t know what’s going to happen.
“My family and I just try to enjoy each other and live for the moment,” Swamy said.
What advice does she have for a newly-diagnosed woman with breast cancer?
“You’re going to get through this. There are so many treatments out there that they can tailor right to you,” Swamy said.
Even when she was pregnant, everyone came up with a plan that was safe for all, even baby Shay, who was not yet born.
No matter what, Swamy said to listen to the medical professionals. Don’t be ashamed or afraid: Just live your life.