In 1997, with two young children and a demanding job, Subha Barry faced her biggest challenge: stage IIIB Hodgkin lymphoma. She endured a combination chemotherapy regimen and was in remission. But the cancer came back, and back again, and again, forcing her to battle with cancer a total of six times, including breast cancer. She was treated at Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey, formerly known as The Cancer Institute of New Jersey, by Roger Strair, MD, PhD, chief of blood disorders and medical oncologist at Rutgers Cancer Institute and Deborah Toppmeyer, MD, chief medical officer, director of the Stacy Goldstein Breast Cancer Center, director of the LIFE Center and chief of Medical Oncology at Rutgers Cancer Institute. Her personal experience with Rutgers Cancer Institute led her and her family to generously provide philanthropic support over many years, inspired her to provide emotional support to newly diagnosed cancer patients and advocate for work-life balance.
Subha Barry’s story was originally published in Rutgers Cancer Institute’s Cancer Connection Magazine in 2015.
In hearing that someone has battled cancer more than once, a typical reaction might be one of pity or sadness. In the case of Subha Barry, who has fought the disease six times over a 15 year period, the reaction is jaw dropping. But this is not a story about fear, sorrow, shutting down or feeling sorry for oneself. According to Barry, hers is a story of success and survival, as well as one of embracing life and giving back. It is a story she hopes will inspire others to do the same.
Subha Barry is the embodiment of a successful career woman. The 53-year-old Barry found herself breaking through barriers even before she established herself in the corporate world of finance. In her native India, tradition dictates that a young woman go from her parents’ home directly to her husband’s home. In 1983 – 21 years old and unmarried – she left her family home in India to attend Rice University in Texas on a scholarship. There she met her future husband, Jim Barry, and earned two master’s degrees – one in business and one in accounting.
She quickly rose through the ranks at different financial institutions with a 21-year career at Merrill Lynch. As a wealth advisor who managed 401(k) plans, stock options and similar products for individuals, she soon became a manager and was asked to build a multicultural business development unit targeting diverse communities who were typically underserved by large financial companies. Constantly on the go in 1997 – even with two young children at home (8-year-old Tara and 18-month-old Jay at the time) – it was early that year that something felt terribly wrong.
“Looking back, I didn’t realize that I was constantly sick for nearly the entire year before – fevers, joint aches, pain, infections. I just kept treating the symptoms,” Barry recalls. She worked through it all. Unusual vaginal bleeding prior to a meeting at work one day was alarming to Barry, but just as she had the entire year before, she treated the symptoms and carried on with her schedule. Still not feeling right the next day, she went to see her gynecologist, who immediately sent her to the hospital for more tests. Her platelet count was extremely low – 6,000 versus the average 150,000 to 450,000 – meaning her ability for her blood to clot was extremely compromised. She was on the verge of bleeding out.
Doctors were able to stop the bleeding, but they were unable to diagnose her condition at that point. She improved with medication, and after five days in the hospital, she went home – and immediately back to work. But in weaning off the medicine, the symptoms returned. Within two months she was back at the hospital, where a CT scan showed abnormally large lymph nodes in her chest and abdomen. Her spleen was removed and within a week, she started on a chemotherapy regimen at what is now known as the Abramson Cancer Center of the University of Pennsylvania. She had stage IIIB Hodgkin lymphoma – a type of cancer of the lymphatic system. Upon hearing her diagnosis, Barry “knew that I had to conquer this challenge. I had felt that my whole life up until that point prepared me to beat cancer. I always had this ability to shake things, but I didn’t know how sick I was.”
Strike Two, Three…
Six cycles of treatment helped put the disease in remission, but in March 2000 she had a recurrence. Five cycles of a different treatment helped keep the monster at bay for another two years. When it came back in 2002, a different form of chemotherapy treatment was followed by a stem cell transplant utilizing her own stem cells (autologous). By 2004 when the cancer surfaced for a fourth time, Barry was nearly out of options. She was unable to find a matched donor for a potential allogeneic stem cell transplant. “I thought about what would happen to my children. I had a desire and a need to keep surviving, but I also knew that I must accept that my best efforts may not be good enough,” she says.
Looking to find treatment closer to her Princeton home, Barry used her broad network of contacts to inquire about options in New Jersey. It was then she was introduced to Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey and chief of Hematologic Malignancies and Blood and Marrow Transplantation Roger Strair, MD, PhD. Under his care, she further learned that her form of Hodgkin lymphoma was Epstein-Barr positive, in part caused by the mutated Epstein-Barr virus in her body. The concern was that while “the mutation doesn’t cause harm on its own, it acts as a host to cloak cancer and let it grow,” recalls Barry.
Despite this concern, she felt comfortable her new doctor was able to address this challenge. “Dr. Strair has the intellectual heft and ‘radar’ of sorts to know what is going on worldwide,” says Barry. Given the Epstein-Barr sensitivity, Dr. Strair knew of a clinical trial tackling that genetic mutation being offered in Houston as part of a consortium effort of Baylor College of Medicine, Houston Methodist Hospital and Texas Children’s Hospital and encouraged Barry to enroll.
“Ms. Barry has incredible strength, determination and courage. She traveled to Houston to participate in a clinical trial designed to specifically treat her type of tumor in a highly unique fashion that stimulated her immune system to target the Hodgkin lymphoma. That same determination has her supporting multiple avenues of research designed to help patients across a broad spectrum. She understands and is motivated by the fact that each bit of research adds to the knowledge that drives the development of new therapies, like the one she benefitted from. She also knows that what is done in New Jersey helps patients locally, nationally and internationally,” notes Strair, who is also a professor of medicine at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.
Barry flew to Texas once every three months for a total of six treatments. The gene therapy worked and Barry was in remission once again. A recurrence two years later was again treated with the next generation of her prior gene therapy and her Hodgkin lymphoma has remained in remission since then. She credits Strair’s “generosity of spirit” in referring her elsewhere. “His ability to put the patient first was mind-boggling for me,” she remembers thinking. Barry says she felt that same generosity of spirit once again when she turned to the Cancer Institute in 2012 when diagnosed with breast cancer. It was then that members of the Stacy Goldstein Breast Cancer Center (including its director Deborah L. Toppmeyer, MD, and surgical oncologist Laurie Kirstein, MD, FACS, both faculty at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School) along with Strair successfully managed her care.
Her relationship with the Cancer Institute deepened in those early years. It was around the time she was flying to Texas for the clinical trial that center leaders met with her and asked her to serve as part of the leadership of the fundraising arm for the Cancer Institute. “They wanted to have my perspective of having gone through such a unique situation with my cancer,” says Barry. “That personal experience brings value in educating others about the world class oncologists and brilliant research at the Cancer Institute.” She is currently the chair of the Director’s Advisory Board for the Cancer Institute and has been serving as a member of the Rutgers University Foundation’s Board of Overseers since 2013.
And for more than a decade, Barry and her family have been “giving back” to the Cancer Institute. “It’s a sentiment I grew up with in watching my parents and grandparents,” she says. Her grandfather was wealthy but lived modestly – “simple living, high thinking. He used the experiences in his life to serve a broader community,” she notes. “If you’re given a great gift of intellect and good living, you have an obligation to give back and establish a sense of purpose. In my case, it is an opportunity for me to make the most out of a crisis.”
While Barry and her family have donated nearly $1 million over time to the Cancer Institute, she is quick to point out that “the giving of one’s time is just as important as giving a check.” Along with her role in educating prospective donors, she also provides guidance to newly diagnosed cancer patients, especially when it comes to work/life balance. “When I first started my cancer journey, a mentor of mine from Merrill Lynch said that I needed to learn to lean on people, because when you lean on others, you also give them permission to lean back on you.” Barry chose to be open about her diagnosis from the start, and as a result she received the kind of help she needed when she needed it.
“I had chemo on Thursdays, took off Fridays and had that day and the weekend to recover. I napped on the couch at work when needed. By choosing to be open about my diagnosis, it gave me an opportunity to maintain a sense of normalcy in my life. It also allowed me to build a rich relationship with my boss, colleagues and subordinates and allowed all of us to be a bit more human,” she recalls. Others were there too. “My mother lived with us during that time and was a source of amazing support. Our family also benefited from the generosity of the children’s teachers, neighbors and so many others.” She shares this lesson of “leaning on others” with those she coaches, reminding them “not to sweat the small stuff.”
“I feel that I’m a better wife, mother and daughter for having gone through my cancer,” Barry strongly emphasizes. But she acknowledges every cancer patient is different and handles the aftermath of diagnosis, treatment and recovery in different ways. “Some just want to go back to their old lives and not remember the cancer, while others feel gratitude but don’t know how to express it,” she says. “I try to engage these patients to become advocates – to acknowledge the tough part of their journey by supporting their physician and the place where they were treated. They have the ability to choose what part of the journey to take with them – making a great sum of all the good moments they choose.” On her own wish list, Barry notes she would love to find a way to support gene therapy collaboration between Strair and her doctors in Texas, whether leveraging gifts she has given or through others.
Bottom line, she says if you feel deep gratitude, “Find some way to funnel your interest for those who cared for you. Get engaged. Become a part of this.” And for all the philanthropic support that physicians like Strair and others at the Cancer Institute have received over the past 20 years to conduct ground-breaking research and make breakthroughs in treatment discoveries, Strair can personally attest that “gratitude is felt both ways.”
Along with reading biographies, cooking Mediterranean and Indian food and enjoying good wine, Barry – who is now the general manager at Working Mother Media and Magazine and Diversity Best Practices – also teaches a gender policy course at Columbia University, continues to advocate for health/wellness and education issues and finds the most enjoyment in spending time with husband Jim and children Tara and Jay (now 26 and 19 respectively). To learn more about giving opportunities at the Cancer Institute, visit cinj.org/giving.