Young Fitness Instructor Meets Challenge of Head and Neck Cancer

It took Abbey Bergman a while to transform her longtime passion into a profession — but once she did, it was instrumental in helping her through her greatest challenge.

Bergman, a fitness instructor who thrives on pushing clients to be their best, focused that same approach inward after being diagnosed with stage IV head and neck cancer in April 2021. While enduring surgery to remove the cancer and reconstruct her tongue, followed by chemotherapy and 33 radiation treatments, all in the span of a few months, she approached her care like a long training regime.

She was now the client, and her care team at Dana-Farber Brigham Cancer Center — led by oncologist Glenn Hanna, MD, of the Head and Neck Treatment Center — the ones providing the pushing.

“Cancer is just like another workout,” says Bergman. “You take the challenge and battle your way through.”

Abbey Bergman hikes in New Hampshire’s White Mountains post-treatment for head and neck cancer, October 2021.

Training for a lifetime

Staying fit was always important to Bergman. Growing up just outside Boston, she began gymnastics classes at age five and was captain of her high school cheerleading team. After trying a traditional 9-to-5 job after college, she quickly realized it wasn’t for her.

Soon Bergman was certified as a fitness instructor, working with clients mostly one-on-one and in boot-camp-style classes. By the time she noticed what she thought was a canker sore on her tongue in early 2021, she was too busy — and feeling too good — to be concerned. For several months she ignored the bump, as well as concurrent neck swelling.

Then, one night in April, Bergman awoke with her mouth full of blood.

“I went to the emergency room right away,” says Bergman. “The doctor told me I had cancer, and I couldn’t believe it.”

When further tests confirmed the “canker sore” was tongue cancer that had metastasized to her neck, Bergman immediately transferred her care to Dana-Farber Brigham Cancer Center. There she and her family were introduced to Hanna, director of its Center for Salivary and Rare Head and Neck Cancers.

“From the moment we met Dr. Hanna, he was the backbone of my care,” recalls Bergman. “He assured me that they were going to get rid of all the cancer, and I felt very confident in him.”

Within two weeks of her diagnosis, Bergman had surgery to remove a large portion of her tongue and 118 neck lymph nodes. During the same operation, her tongue was reconstructed using skin grafted from between her left knee and hip. Once healed, she began seven weeks of radiation treatments (daily) and chemotherapy infusions (weekly).

Hanna believes Bergman’s attitude, as well as her excellent physical conditioning, helped her through the demanding regimen. She was also much younger than most head and neck cancer patients — typically in their 50s and 60s. 

“Abbey is a remarkable woman,” says Hanna. “Her healthy lifestyle and sense of physical well-being no doubt impacted her endurance and time to recovery from rigorous treatment. She exemplifies the importance of the mind-body connection.”

Three people were by Bergman’s side throughout this period: her mother, Marla, accompanied her to every appointment; her boyfriend, Connor, was with her at home each night; and her sister, Alana, flew in from Florida whenever possible. Work friends also did their part, cheering her on in videos and photos while clad in “Abbey Strong” tee-shirts. She says every bit helped.

Bergman celebrates the end of radiation.

“One day I looked at my mom,” Bergman recalls, “and I said to her, ‘I think I’ve been training my whole life for this.’”

Speaking from the heart

 These days, Bergman continues to recover. The cancer is gone, but she has regular checkups to make sure it has not come back. She is regaining her physical strength, eyeing a return to her training career. Her gym is holding her spot for her.

She is also undergoing speech therapy to help with swallowing and articulation as she adjusts to her new tongue, but this didn’t stop Bergman from making another bold move. Although she felt self-conscious about her imperfect speech post-surgery, she appeared with Hanna in September 2021 on the WEEI/NESN Jimmy Fund Radio-Telethon, an annual fundraiser supporting research and patient care at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Her active treatment was over, but Bergman was continuing to challenge herself — and promote awareness around head and neck cancer — by sharing her story.

“It was a big deal for me, but I figured the only way any of this makes sense is if I can use it to help others,” says Bergman. “I want to be there for young people who are going through what I did.”

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