If there’s one thing that my ordeals have taught me, it’s that “it takes a village.” Although this phrase is often thrown around during hard times, it’s one in which I’ve truly come to believe in. The first time that I realized the importance of this phrase was on August 4, 2005, when my daughter, Lily, was born. Throughout the entire pregnancy, our “village” – my parents, my husband’s family, and our many friends – surrounded us through every step. On the day that they came to meet Lily and wish us well, things were going so great that none of us could’ve ever imagined the storm that was about to come.
Two months after giving birth to Lily, I returned to work full time. About a month into working, however, I began to feel breathless, tired, and completely devoid of energy. Although many would simply brush these symptoms off as those of motherhood, I still felt as if something was actually wrong. After visiting my doctor, I found out that my assumptions were correct: my symptoms certainly weren’t the result of motherhood.
Instead, I was diagnosed with malignant pleural mesothelioma. Turns out, it was caused by asbestos exposure, mesothelioma cancer affects the lungs and their surrounding tissue. I found out that I was unknowingly exposed to asbestos as a child and it had remained dormant in my system for 30 years.
My doctor gave me only 15 months to live if I didn’t seek treatment. While I was concerned for my own well being, the thought of my husband and daughter having to cope with my death and survive alone convinced me that I had to take the most drastic option available. As a result, my husband and I flew to Boston to seek treatment from one of the country’s best mesothelioma doctors, leaving Lily behind in South Dakota under the care of her grandparents. In February 2006, I underwent an extrapleural pneumonectomy, a treatment that required the removal of my left lung and its surrounding tissue. This, however, was not the end of my journey. I had to recover for an additional 18 days in the hospital, face a two-month recovery period out of it, and then I could undergo chemotherapy and radiation treatments.
Despite the hardships, however, I came out cancer-free. Although my dedicated and knowledgeable doctors are obviously responsible for my survival, half of the battle is having the will to live. If it hadn’t been for my “village,” I can safely say that there’s a good chance I wouldn’t be here to tell this story. Throughout the entire process, our friends and family came out of the woodwork to provide us with all of the love and support we needed. My parents – who were taking care of Lily at the time – also sent us photographs of Lily. Although the photos were grainy and black-and-white, seeing her was enough to convince me to continue fighting; I may have missed a few early milestones, but I had no intention of missing the rest.
Cancer not only taught us that life is a very fragile thing, but also that a lot of good can come from the bad. As a result, we as a family have made it a point to embrace everything that life throws at us and be thankful for each and every moment.
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 her story at the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance Blog.