The Immaculate Conception
“Everything grows and grows, babies do…,” the sounds of Raffi blared across our bright newly renovated monochrome kitchen as I looked down at my pregnant belly. “Yes, everything grows and grows, sisters do, brothers too” and cancer too, I thought. As I opened the caesar stone cabinet to find a Keurig cup, my mind once again flashed back to that conversation that seemed to play on repeat in an infinite feedback loop. At 33 weeks pregnant, Dr. T called me and informed that I had early-stage breast cancer. I was the lucky 1 in 3,000 women who actually got breast cancer while pregnant. This was the first of many conversations that started with the doctor’s assurance that everything would be okay. All of the assurances adding up to a sickening feeling that there was a chance that for the first time in my life everything may not be okay. Trapped in this suburban white kitchen, the perfection of my life chafed against the insidious malignancy growing inside my left breast.
All of a sudden, a ray of light bounded into the kitchen, rescuing me from the dark well of my thoughts. My 14-month-old son smiled at me in the way every person hopes to be gazed upon at least once in a lifetime. As I stroked Miles’s perfect thick, brown curls with their golden highlights, I couldn’t help thinking about how I may lose my own hair.
I had inherited my thick, curly hair from my father, who, in turn, had inherited his hair from his mother. It turns out hair was not the only strong gene that was passed along our Ashkenazi genetic line. Along with thick, beautiful hair and thick, less beautiful thighs, the BRCA1 gene had been passed down from generation to generation, unbeknownst to any of us. But the gene was no longer invisible. I could pass this gene onto this angelic little boy and the life growing inside of me. How strange it was two things so different could be growing in my body at the same time: fertility and malignancy.
My pregnancy had occurred “by accident” while my son who was six months old at the time napped. I had spent the better part of my pregnancy beating myself up for being foolish enough to get knocked up like a teenager in between trying to deal with our housing crisis (brought on by the fear of raising two children in a small New York City apartment) and trying to convince my new employer that I was still serious about my job, despite getting pregnant the second I started. However, something about the serendipity of the pregnancy just pleased me; reminding me that life could not be planned and some things were besheret (meant to be), as my grandmother would have said. Josh and I jokingly nicknamed the fetus “J.C.” because it certainly seemed to us that this was an immaculate conception.
When my son was born, my neurotic obsession with his health threatened to jeopardize my own. I slept with the light on, so I could monitor his breathing. Josh knew that I needed to sleep, but I did not. I kept thinking I can survive this. I am strong. My baby is vulnerable and weak. It is my job to protect him.
The stakes were so different now. My agency over this pregnancy, my birth experience and my body had been stripped by my diagnosis. Not only could I not even breastfeed my own child due to my impending double mastectomy in three weeks, but I had to rest in order to protect myself, so I could be there for my children in the future. No concept was more foreign to me, as I did not know how to be a mother (or anything else for that matter) without going at it with all my might – to me that was the definition of what it meant to be a good mother.
Walking through the entrance of Mount Sinai, I felt sick. I had entered through these same doors only last week to go to the Dubin Breast Center. I sat in the grey brick waiting room with its pebbled linoleum floors, watching the nervous excitement of the families rotating into and out of the delivery rooms with their brightly coloured balloons and pink and blue plush teddy bears. I was jealous of the innocent anticipation on their faces. To me, the birth of my child had become an initial, relatively easy procedure in a long, arduous trek up a much steeper mountain. And then what? The future seemed so distant and so blurry. I could not see beyond the cancer.
But here I was sitting in the waiting room at 36 weeks and 6 days pregnant, about to give birth to a full-term, although early, baby. As I was led to my room, I noticed the scarlet letter: the blue handwriting on the erasable whiteboard outside of my room upon which was scrawled “B.C.” for breast cancer. This caused a lot of discomfort amongst the nursing staff, who would start lecturing me about breastfeeding before awkwardly catching their error and turning a shade of scarlet themselves, their expressions transformed into apologetic looks of pity. I hated pity. I was determined to keep breast cancer out of the birthing suite.
Although I had begged Josh to allow me to find out the sex of the baby, especially when I was grasping at straws for some semblance of control amidst the chaos of my diagnosis, he did not budge. However, I was sure it was another boy. And then with one big, groaning push, SHE was here. The perfect daughter I had always wanted.
She was smaller than my son. I could not look at her E.T.-like feet because they reminded me that she may have liked to stay in the warm comfort of the womb for another couple of weeks. However, she was beautiful and everyone said that with her rose petal lips, dark skin and full head of hair, she looked just like a miniature version of her mother. More significantly, she was mighty. She had defied the odds surrounding conception, she pushed herself easily into this world and she had literally saved my life (as I do not think I would have sought medical attention so quickly for the tiny, insignificant feeling hardness in my breast had I not been going to regularly scheduled OB appointments).
It was not that she made me forget that I had cancer. I do not think that is possible. But she did make me realize that there could be great joy even with cancer. Perhaps the joy was heightened because we all needed some joy. At that moment, I felt that my life would no longer be what I expected, but it just might be okay. After all, our daughter was unexpected and she was besheret.
We named her Lyla after my grandmother’s sister who died of breast cancer. In Hebrew, Lyla means night. Her Hebrew name is Orli, which means light. She would be our light in the night. She would get us through.
Jenny Leon was born and raised in Toronto. She attended Dalhousie University and the University of Toronto Law School before moving to New York City to pursue her legal career. Jenny now lives in New Jersey with her husband and her two babies. Jenny was diagnosed with Stage 2A triple negative breast cancer in April. She underwent a double mastectomy and has completed 11/16 rounds of chemo, which will be followed by radiation.
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