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. Here’s one of her articles.
A New Mom’s Cancer Struggle
I learned the truth of the saying “It takes a village” shortly after the birth of my daughter Lily on August 4, 2005. Although she was born by emergency C-section, both of us appeared healthy.
Lily was indeed a happy, robust baby, but within weeks of her birth, I knew something was wrong with me beyond the usual new-mom exhaustion. Doctors subjected me to a battery of tests, and on November 21, 2005, only 3½ months after Lily’s birth, I learned I had malignant pleural mesothelioma.
Also known as mesothelioma cancer, this disease attacks the lining of the lung. Its primary cause is asbestos exposure, which I must have encountered at some point in my childhood.
Given 15 months to live without treatment, all I could think about was Lily growing up motherless. The prognosis for mesothelioma is poor, so I opted for an aggressive course of treatment. My husband and I went to Boston, where on February 2, I underwent a treatment for mesothelioma known as extrapleural pneumenectomy, surgery in which my left lung was removed. I spent 18 days in the hospital following the procedure and two additional months recovering before I began chemotherapy and radiation.
But I wasn’t just a cancer patient—I was a new mother as well. Without the support of our village, we wouldn’t have made it. We learned who our true friends were: some people we depended on were nowhere to be found, while others we didn’t even realize were part of our village generously offered their love, assistance, and prayers.
While my husband and I were in Boston, my parents cared for Lily back in my childhood home of South Dakota, where a village surrounded them as well. Girls I used to babysit now babysat Lily while my parents worked. Members of the church I’d attended and people I grew up with were there for my parents as well.
In Boston, my husband and I found support with new friends, many of whom were dealing with the same challenges that we faced. My mom emailed me photos of Lily’s milestones: moving from bottles to food, scooting, and rolling around. After my husband printed the photos, the nurses would pass them around and exclaim over them. I never lost sight of the fact that I was fighting for Lily.
Today, we live far from my parents and sometimes don’t see them for months, but they are deeply bonded with Lily. We all learned a lesson about the fragility of life and the importance of embracing the moments we have.
I try to embrace the good things that came from my cancer diagnosis. One of those good things was the awareness of my village, a network of love support stretching from Boston to South Dakota and beyond. I am so thankful for all the wonderful things people did for my family and me.