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Illustration by Mary Kirkpatrick

I am living with this presence growing in my body, silent, stealthy, but evolving and different every week, if not occasionally every day.

Now that my abdomen is growing with cancer, I cannot help but be reminded of when, in the past, my belly grew with new life: of course, with my children.

Back then, there were books I pored over to know what was happening “behind closed doors” so to speak. There were so many sources to choose from, either medical or anecdotal, comical week-by-week stories from another pregnant mother or the old standby What to Expect When You’re Expecting. You could find out what to expect! I could hardly wait to flip the page and find out what was happening the next week, almost like an advent calendar but it lasts up to 40 weeks. There was always a new thing your tiny creature could feel or do, it was a terrifying wonder! Often terrifying precisely because it was so invisible to me, I had no psychic connection to this new being, no intrinsic feeling for something that didn’t really announce its presence until my abdomen started to expand. You could look at a page in a book and be told how big the baby or the placenta or your uterus was, but you could never actually see your baby. You had to have blind faith that you and your peanut-/grapefruit-/football-sized fetus were going to meet at the end of the incarceration time, and just hope it was not an early introduction.

I read recently that one of the associated conditions for breast cancer development (among others) is highly fertile child-bearing years. Well, my partner and I abandoned caution three times, and I got pregnant three times. I would call that a fairly fertile system, especially when I consider how many peers I knew who struggled for years to capture just one coupling of egg and sperm to help their family grow.

I must reflect, however, that fertility being a condition under which breast cancer may flourish feels a bit unfair. I mean, I didn’t exactly agree to this trade-off, didn’t agree to drink a bewitched poison to acquire not only a first-, but a second-born as well, and now it’s too late! Of course, I know I would do the same thing again, if given the same choices, how could I not? I had one part of my life that was easy – having those babies – who would rescind that deal?

Now that I’m enduring the same discomforts – the same distended abdomen and accompanying shortness of breath from the pressure into my lungs, the restrictions to my capacity to take a big breath, I’m brought again to that child-carrying time in my life. I am reminded of what it is like to have your body morph into something unfamiliar and mysterious, and I view it with the same awed curiosity.

This time, however, there are no textbooks I wish to consult. I know this side of illness better than I ever understood those 38 to 40 weeks of pregnancy. I know what abdominal masses and liver failure look like. I have seen multiple iterations of these conditions, and it is hard to bear that now these belong to me. The cells are not tidy and miraculous as they were with my babies, building a person who would think and play in the world. These cells are up to no good, they’re aberrant and wild. I don’t feel angry at their presence in my body, but I will admit a kind of confusion as to why they’re here. What went wrong that they should wish to breech their own very specific part of a compartmentalized organ? Can I anthropomorphize them at my leisure, imagining them breaking free to fulfill some kind of genetic yearning to see the sights else? Are they confused? Do they know that their wandering will put an end to their own adventure? It’s foolish, certainly, to think these things, but I will admit I’ve thought them. I have one million “whys?” just as I did when I was incubating the magical fish that became my own children (for what pregnant mother can forget the supremely odd feeling of that baby churning around in your belly like a dark fish, unknown limbs and fins and slippery skin under my gaze, so close and yet so unknowable). Why and how is this happening now?

With pregnancy, the outcome is generally part of the process. If all goes according to plan there will be a baby. One doesn’t know for certain what that will look like either: A baby still carries with it a million different interpretations. However, the process is ubiquitous enough that some assumptions can be made about the end result.

The end result of Stage 4 cancer is only death. Perhaps it could be said that advanced cancer, too, is open to interpretation, but I know enough about my story to foresee how it will end. There will be a net difference in lives existing on this planet at its outcome, just like with a new birth, but instead of plus, it’s a minus.

Maybe I like to think there really was some potion I drank in exchange for my ease in having my babies. It would make me feel like I traded something, that there was some choice in this. I like the notion that there was some witchcraft involved rather than some cellular breakdown at the side of my genetic road. I choose magic, I choose choice. That would make this a mythical promise fulfilled, an answer to a forgotten question I asked many many years ago. A promise, like in any mythical story, I never thought would catch up with me.

I’m afraid of going through that frightening door but less so as time goes by. Things are getting more physically uncomfortable and this has the unexpected result of making the path clearer. I see the end as being a soft landing rather than something dreaded. It means no longer enduring, enduring, enduring. I’m sorry for my family, but they see what this is like. Nobody will harshly judge my willingness to go, in the end. And anyway, it’s not like I have much of a choice. This is going to happen, I will face it.

Aimée Nezavdal lived in Dundas, Ont., with her husband Frank and their children, Merrick and Ari. She died in January, aged 51.