Back in November, I wrote a blog post about keeping your lungs healthy. I touched on mesothelioma cancer, but I think it deserves much more attention. In fact, writing that blog post was the first time I had ever even heard of this specific disease. I bet many of you are in the same boat.
I find myself extremely inspired by all sorts of personal stories, but especially from cancer survivors. I am willing to bet we all know at least one or two family members or friends who have battled or are battling some form of cancer. It is my honor to share with you an interview with Heather Von St. James, a mesothelioma cancer survivor. Hopefully her story will inspire you as it did me!
Let’s dig in!
- Can you tell us a little about your story? I’m Heather Von St. James. I’m a mother, a wife, and before my mesothelioma diagnosis I was a stylist and business owner. In 2005, I was diagnosed with a rare but preventable cancer called mesothelioma. I had just given birth to my baby girl Lily and was told I only had 15 months to live. I got sick from wearing my father’s work jacket around the house. As a girl I loved wearing his coat and I had no idea that I was exposing myself to the toxin asbestos, which were in the fibers of his coat. My husband Cam and I quickly found ourselves in Boston with Dr. David Sugarbaker, who told me I was a candidate for a risky but potentially life saving surgery that would involve the removal of my left lung. On February 2, 2006, I underwent this surgery and spent 18 days recovering in the hospital. After a month or so, I went back to my parents house in Boston and in the following weeks received 4 rounds of chemo and 30 sessions of radiation. Cam stayed home in Minnesota to work while most of this was going on. It was extremely difficult but I would not be here today had I not gotten the treatment and support that I did.
- As a new mother, how did you react to hearing you had the “C” word? I was full of fear and uncertainty filled my head. What would happen to my newborn, Lily? How would my husband go on without his wife? What would happen to our house and the life we had worked so hard to build? Lily needed her mommy and Cam his wife. Dr. Sugarbaker was incredibly helpful in easing this initial shock. After that, I’d say my determination kicked in. I was going to beat this; I had to. It was all quite surreal. Months ago everything was fine, but then this happened. My fighter instincts were ignited and I knew I had to do anything and everything to push through this.
- What helped you get through your cancer experience? The support from everyone around me made a huge difference in my life once I was going through my cancer experience. As a new mom, you have to dismiss the idea that you have to do everything on your own. My parents took me in and let Lily and I live with them while I was recovering. I was motivated by my husband, who was able to keep it together from miles away while still working to support our family. He really only saw Lily for about 36 hours during the first three months of her life, because he had to be back in Minnesota working. There are also tons of support groups that can help make the fight against cancer easier. I acknowledge that I won’t go back to that “normal” feeling again, but I’ve adapted to a new normal that is pretty astounding.
- Where do you find your inspiration as a 10 year survivor of a rare cancer? Other patients inspire me to no end. I’ve gotten involved in a few different organizations and meeting with people from all walks of life who have beat seemingly impossible odds are such a source of inspiration. My childhood friend’s son was given four months to live after being diagnosed with cancer at only 18 months old, and he just started college this year! He is just one of many people whose journey inspire me.
- What does the future look like for you? I hope to inspire in the way that I’ve been inspired. I want to prove that with hope, the odds don’t matter. A positive attitude is key in overcoming adversity and if people can look at my story and think, “if she did it, I can too,” then I’ve successfully accomplished what I want to. I want to spread awareness about the dangers of asbestos exposure, a material that is still not banned, and how mesothelioma is a man-made illness. To me, being a survivor means helping others who are facing similar challenges as I do.
What an inspiring story! I have goosebumps that will probably last for days. Thank you, Heather, for sharing your story with us!