Rebecca Coglianese Works towards Career in Physics while Battling Cancer

By, Jocelyn Visnov, Editor-in-Chief


Determined to finish her senior year strong, Rebecca Coglianese has continued to attend most of her classes and apply for postgraduate education programs while undergoing cancer treatment. 

Coglianese, a senior physics major at Manhattan College, was diagnosed with late stage adenoid cystic carcinoma (AdCC) in December 2022. 

She had begun seeing doctors three months prior after her boyfriend, Dylan Cho, noticed some abnormal swelling in her jaw. The swelling and pain in her jaw was originally dismissed as a swollen muscle.

“It’s been a roller coaster to get diagnosed. It really has,” Coglianese said. “You think it’s like in the movies, you think everything [getting diagnosed] happens fast, but it is not like that at all. It took forever for me to find out I have cancer and it kind of sucks having to live through that.” 

  Cho, a senior chemical engineering major, recalls Coglianese had been complaining about pain in her face and jaw for nearly two years leading up to the diagnosis. 

“Rebecca had been complaining about jaw and facial pain for almost two years,” he wrote. “She also has TMJ (a facial disorder characterized by jaw displacement) that was believed to be the cause of her pain. Around September she began complaining about a swollen lump that was assumed to be a swollen muscle and was told to just massage it out. Since it had not gone away with physical therapy, I had asked to look inside her mouth since the ‘lump’ was directly beneath her tongue. There was a very obvious asymmetry in her lower left pallet, so I decided to put a piece of ice on the lump. She could not feel a temperature change, which was extremely concerning.” 

Cho has created a GoFundMe page for Coglianese to help raise awareness of the situation and help her cover medical expenses.

According to rarediseases.org, AdCC most commonly occurs in men and women between ages 40 – 60, putting Coglianese far outside the typical age range for this disease. 

“I was like, ‘I’m 21, I don’t have a tumor,’ and there’s no genetic cancer history in my family,” Coglianese said. “So I did not expect it at all. But it caused a lot of pain.” 

After initial struggles dealing with complex medical insurance policies, Coglianese has begun receiving treatment at Memorial Sloan Kettering hospital, which houses a team of doctors that specialize in rare forms of cancer. 

Coglianese has not let her cancer get in the way of pursuing her career. She is one of only three current female physics majors enrolled in the small department within the Kakos School of Science and has participated in various research opportunities throughout her academic career. 

She first approached Farrooh Fattoyev, Ph.D., during her freshman year at MC to discuss her interest in studying stars. 

We started working on research almost immediately after we met,” Fattoyev wrote. “In her first project, she embarked on the topic of neutron stars in the braneworld. The braneworld is a higher dimensional physical hyperspace where our 3-dimensional universe is restricted to a single brane. She studied the role of the brane tension on the properties of neutron stars and found interesting constraints on the brane parameters. She has actively participated in summer research as well.” 

Passionate about pursuing a career studying astrophysics, Coglianese has continued to work hard in her classes and apply to postgraduate programs in the hopes of continuing her research and eventually receiving her Ph.D. She noted that she had finally submitted her first application to graduate school on the day she received her diagnosis. 

With both of her parents currently living in Texas, Coglianese has leaned on Cho and her sister Victoria, a sophomore mechanical engineering major, as her biggest supporters.

“Rebecca and I are very close, we can frequently be seen giggling together in the library,” her sister wrote. “When I first found out about her diagnosis, I was in shock and disbelief. It took a long time to process, and it was particularly difficult as the severity unfolded during the holiday season.” 

Their parents will fly in from their home in Texas to be with Coglianese as she undergoes surgery to remove the tumor on Wednesday, Feb. 15. She will begin radiation treatment shortly after recovering from the surgery. 

Coglianese hopes to inspire more women to pursue careers in STEM fields, no matter what their circumstances may be. For those looking to learn more about Coglianese and show their support, visit https://gofund.me/30d8c962 to view the GoFundMe page set up by Cho.