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Montreal neuroscientist battling cancer will leave lasting legacy for underrepresented students

Click to play video: 'Montreal neuroscientist seeks to empower future students as she battles ovarian cancer' Montreal neuroscientist seeks to empower future students as she battles ovarian cancer
WATCH: A viral twitter post captured the attention of people around the world this spring, when a neuroscientist from Montreal shared about having to tell her son she was terminally ill. – Jul 1, 2021

A Twitter post captured the attention of people around the world this past spring when a neuroscientist from Montreal shared about telling her six and half year old son she was terminally ill. The day she planned to have the conversation Dr. Nadia Chaudhri was in hospital.

“I woke up at six in the morning and I was in bed howling in grief,” Chaudhri recalls. “I was literally like crying my eyes out.”

Chaudhri posted the tweet from her hospital bed and didn’t think much of it, but it quickly went viral, casting a spotlight on her battle with ovarian cancer.

“Today is the day I tell my son I am dying from cancer,” the post reads. “Let all my tears flow now so that I can be brave this afternoon.”

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In January 2020, Chaudhri started experiencing symptoms, including vague abdominal pain, and a more frequent need to urinate. She was treated twice for a urinary tract infection, but in June of that year, after pushing for more answers, a cancer diagnosis was confirmed.

Read more: Bringing awareness to World Ovarian Cancer Day

“My husband and I were devastated,” Chaudhri said. “He cried at my wedding, and the second time I have seen him cry was that day.”

An associate professor known for her research lab at Concordia University and her passion for fostering the careers of graduate students, the cancer diagnosis changed everything. Having it unfold during the coronavirus pandemic made a hard situation even more complicated. With successive rounds of treatment, surgery and chemotherapy, Chaudhri had to be extremely careful she didn’t expose herself to COVID-19.

While some of the treatments were successful, eventually the cancer came back in March 2021.

I knew I had to shut down my lab,” Chaudhri said. “It was a very sad realization because science has been a part of who I am since I was an undergraduate.”

Read more: University of Alberta students raise money for ovarian cancer research in honour of professor

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Preparing to tell her son was another difficult step. However, Chaudhri wanted to ensure that he understood and heard the news directly from her. “You don’t [typically] have conversations about death with a six-year-old, but we have them now in snippets, here and there,” Chaudhri said. “It’s good because I want him to be prepared. I want him to understand that I will go to a place where my ancestors are waiting for me and I won’t be alone.”

According to the Canadian Cancer Society, about 3,100 women will have had an ovarian cancer diagnosis in 2020, and roughly 1,950 will eventually die from the disease.

Click to play video: 'Bringing awareness to World Ovarian Cancer Day' Bringing awareness to World Ovarian Cancer Day
Bringing awareness to World Ovarian Cancer Day – May 6, 2021

While her research has had to stop, Chaudhri has still found a way to keep contributing to the field, making sure her students and future academics are left with opportunities.

A Go Fund me campaign has raised more than $196,000 for underrepresented scientists’ travel grants to attend the annual conference for the Research Society on Alcoholism, a prestigious conference in the United States.

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More recently, at Concordia, the “Nadia Chaudhri Wingspan Award” was announced to help young neuroscientists from underrepresented backgrounds gain access, something Chaudhri had to grapple with throughout her career.

Read more: Ovarian cancer patients fearful as Canada grapples with specialist shortage

Her dream is that people who might not consider going into the field, use the award as an opportunity to get a foot in the door.

“Having these fellowships established will give me some peace of mind as I know that this will continue in perpetuity.”

While her legacy is secure, her hospital visits and treatments have not stopped — every minute has become precious to Chaudhri.

She says these days she finds peace in her garden and other green spaces. Her extended family has come to live with her, and dinners are joyous occasions filled with storytelling and making memories. Woven in between all of these moments is the great love shared between Chaudhri, her husband and son.

“All I know is that I am buying time and my goal is to buy as much time as I can … and for my son I just want him to have good memories from this time and understand how deep our love is.”

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