My Decade of Survivorship

November 21, 2005, when my daughter was three months old, I was diagnosed with malignant pleural mesothelioma. I was just getting into the swing of things of being a new mom when this illness struck.

It started with rapid weight loss, but I was breastfeeding exclusively, which burns a lot of calories, so we chalked it up to that. I had only gained five pounds through the whole pregnancy, but my doctor was not concerned because I was a little on the heavy side.

Then the fatigue started. I was so tired all the time. I had no appetite, and could not get enough sleep, but all these symptoms could be attributed to postpartum issues. The fatigue got steadily worse. I became anemic, then it felt like a truck parked on my chest. I had difficulty breathing.

The final symptom to creep in was a low-­grade fever that wouldn’t go away. Individually, the symptoms were not scary. Add them all together and we knew something serious was going on.

Turns out I got mesothelioma after being exposed to asbestos fibers on my dad’s coat, which I wore as a little girl. I was referred to Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston where I met with Dr. David Sugarbaker. It was there that I went through a series of tests to see if I was candidate for surgery.

Two days before Christmas, I got the phone call I had been waiting for. The surgery I was scheduled for was called an extra pleural pneumonectomy. I spent the next 18 days in the hospital due to some post surgical complications after my procedure, then two more weeks in Boston, just to make sure all would be ok, then returned home to my childhood home.

My daughter was living there with my parents while I had surgery. I was not able to care for her on my own yet, so I stayed with my parents for two months. My husband stayed at our home in Minnesota to work. Just because one gets sick, doesn’t mean the bills stop coming!

When I returned home to Minnesota, I started chemo. I had four sessions three weeks apart. I finished chemo at the end of July, just in time for Lily’s first birthday. We threw a huge party, and then a month later I started radiation.

I underwent 30 sessions of radiation and finished up treatments almost a year after my initial symptoms appeared. I was cautiously optimistic that all the things we did to get rid of the cancer worked, and at my next appointment in Boston, I got the news that I was all clear.

Heather Von St. James

I am now approaching my 10-year cancer-free anniversary on a momentous day that has been dubbed by my family as “Lung Leavin’ Day.” It was the day that I had my surgery, and a day we now celebrate. We gather and collectively write our biggest fears on a plate, and smash them into a fire to signify our conquering of those fears.

It is empowering, and emotional to look back and think that I might not have made it to this day. I might not have been able to see my little girl grow up and enjoy my marriage to my best friend.

I am here today to not only be a voice to the victims who were silenced by this preventable disease, but I am living proof that, with hope, the odds don’t matter. I hope to inspire and raise awareness in any way that I can.

Asbestos has not yet been banned in the U.S. and is the sole reason I got sick, and exposure is something that is still happening today. My ultimate goal would be to see this toxic material banned so that no family has to go through what we did.

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Heather Von St James

About the Author | Heather Von St. James

Heather Von St. James is a wife, a mom, a Starbucks addict, and a mesothelioma survivor. She enjoys flowers, gardening, all things whimsical, volunteering at her daughter's school, and being married to her best friend. She lives by the motto: "Life is a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death. You've got to live!!"

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