The Year My Dad Went Bald welcomes a guest blog from Heather Von St. James. Heather is a mesothelioma survivor who was diagnosed three months after the birth of her daughter. Since her recovery she works to offer a message of courage, inspiration and hope to those diagnosed with mesothelioma cancer through advocacy and awareness. This is her story.
A Mother’s Fight with Mesothelioma
If there’s one phrase that’s thrown around a lot during hard times, it’s “it takes a village.” What the phrase means is that in order to get through hardships, it takes a “village” of people – such as friends and family – to help you through it. Although it may be trite, it’s a phrase I’ve really come to believe in; if it hadn’t been for my village, there’s a good chance I wouldn’t be here today.
The first time that I realized the importance of my village was during my pregnancy. With no complications except for an emergency C-section, the pregnancy was very normal. Despite its normalcy, however, all pregnancies aren’t free of hardships. Thankfully, my “village” – my parents, my husband and his family, and our friends – were helping and supporting me every step of the way, even on the delivery room on August 4, 2005. With everyone so happy that day, nothing could have possibly prepared us for the storm looming on the horizon.
Needless to say, this wouldn’t be the last time my village would need to help me.
About a month or so after I returned to work, I began to feel numerous symptoms that are typical of being a new mother: I was breathless, tired, and had no energy to spare. However, I couldn’t quite shake the feeling that there was something else causing my symptoms. As a result, I called my doctor to see what was up. After a few tests, we finally got to the root of the problem.
On November 21, 2005, my doctor diagnosed me with malignant pleural mesothelioma, a type of cancer that affects the lining of the lungs. One of the leading causes of mesothelioma is asbestos, which I had apparently come into contact with 30 years ago as a child. After all this time, it came back to haunt me.
Given only 15 months to live, I knew I had to seek treatment fast. My survival, however, wasn’t just about me: It was also about preventing my husband and daughter from having to live alone and deal with my death. Choosing the most drastic option available, my husband and I left our home in Minnesota, and my mother took Lily with her to my childhood home in South Dakota so that I could undergo treatment in Boston. Upon arrival in Boston, I underwent a procedure known as an extrapleural pneumonectomy, which resulted in the removal
of my left lung and all of its surrounding tissue. After that, I faced a recovery period of over two months, followed by chemotherapy and radiation treatments.
After several months of fighting, I came out alive and cancer-free. Although my survival is mainly attributed to the skill and expertise of Dr. David Sugarbaker, my village played a major role as well. If it wasn’t for the love and support of my friends and family, there’s a good chance that I wouldn’t be alive today. My husband and I formed our own little village in Boston. We met some other amazing families who were going through the same thing as we were, and we all supported each other in our fights. Having these people there with me, going through the same things as we were made all the difference in the world for it. It was comforting to have people to talk to and rely on for support. My parents had their own village in South Dakota, which helped them in the transition from becoming grandparents to full time caregivers. Little girls who I had babysat when I was a teenager were grown with families of their own and helped to babysit Lily when my parents worked and people from the church growing up gave so much support to my parents during that time. It’s amazing how love and support can make such a significant difference!
Cancer, although deadly, is a funny thing: While it throws a lot of bad things your way, from those bad things come a lot of good things as well. Because of this, we as a family embrace both the good and the bad in life, knowing that something good will come either way.
Heather Von St James is a 43-year-old wife and mother. Upon her diagnosis of mesothelioma, she vowed to be a source of hope for other patients who found themselves with the same diagnosis. Now, over 6 years later, her story has been helping people all over the globe. She continues her advocacy and awareness work by blogging, speaking and sharing her message of hope and healing with others. Check out more of her story at the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance Blog