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Living with Mesothelioma – A rare and deadly cancer caused by exposure to asbestos

Heather Von St. James

A few weeks ago I started talking with Heather Von St. James – a beautiful wife and mother who is living with Mesothelioma, a rare and deadly cancer caused by exposure to asbestos. After receiving life saving surgery that included the removal of her left lung, Heather made it her life’s mission to educate people about this deadly disease and it’s cause. Asbestos has been used for many applications in the past including building materials in homes, office buildings, and naval ships. It is STILL not banned in the United States today.

Two things.. My mom was praying for me while they where driving the 600 miles from their house to ours when I was first diagnosed.. She was deep in prayer when the words. “This is not unto death” came to her. She felt as though God was telling her this, and I held onto those words like a life preserver. The other thing that helped me was a card I had gotten in the mail from a former client and friend, who himself had suffered a terrible accident and broke over 200 bones in his body. He lived and overcame great obstacles, so he knew the uphill battle I was facing. The card had a scripture, Jeremiah 29:11 “For know the plans I have for you” declares the Lord, “Plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” That is what meditated on daily… and still do from time to time.
This is my interview with Heather . . .

1. Could you give a brief introduction for our readers about you, your family, any interests you have?

My name is Heather Von St James.. I’m a 45 year old wife, mom to an 8 1/2 year old daughter, Starbucks addict, and can currently be found elbow deep in dirt planting flowers and vegetables in my gardens.. I love summer and warm weather.. I love being outside and working in the yard,  much as I love to shop. I’m a camper, boater and life lover.. 8 years ago, I was diagnosed with malignant pleural mesothelioma.. the cancer that is caused by asbestos exposure. Up until that point, I was a busy salon owner and stylist, and loved my job.. but life had a different plan for me. I left salon life behind and now am a patient advocate for newly diagnosed mesothelioma patients and their families. I blog and share my story and life through the many social media outlets. 

2. Can you describe your journey with mesothelioma? 

I was diagnosed on November 21, 2005 when my daughter was just 3 months old. I was just getting into the swing of things of being a mom when the illness struck. It was a series of symptoms that finally added up to the diagnosis. I was referred to Brigham and Women’s hospital in Boston to the International Mesothelioma Program. It was there that I went through a series of tests to see if I was candidate for surgery. 2 days before Christmas in 2005, I got the phone call I had been waiting for. The surgery I was scheduled for was called an extra pleural pneumonectomy. It entails the removal of the pleura, which is the lining of the lung, where the cancer was, the left lung, the 6th rib, the left half of my diaphragm, the lining of my heart, both of which were replaced with surgical gore-tex. During the surgery, a chemotherapy solution was here to 140 degrees f, and pumped into the now empty chest cavity. After and hour of application, the solution was pumped out and I was sewn up and sent to recovery. I spent the next 18 days in the hospital due to some post surgical complications. We were able to overcome those problems and I was released. I spent 2 more weeks in Boston, just to make sure all would be OK, then I returned home to my childhood home where my daughter had been living with my parents while I had surgery. I was not able to care for her on my own yet, so I lived with my parents for 2 months. My husband stayed at our home in MN to work. Just because one gets sick, doesn’t mean the bills stop coming. I’m so thankful I was able to stay with my parents during this time.. When I returned home to MN, I started chemotherapy. I had 4 sessions of chemo, 3 weeks apart. I finished chemo at the end of July, just in time for Lily’s 1st 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 first 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. My life continues to be lived in 6 month increments between visits to Boston for check ups, and I try to live life to its fullest.
3. Did you face any obstacles during your treatment process? If so, how did you overcome these obstacles? 

I basically spent the first year of Lily’s life sick.. It is a blur and I don’t remember a lot of it. Raising an 8 month old and starting chemo was not fun. Being a first time mom, and taking care of a baby was probably the hardest thing I did. I had a ton of help though, and am so thankful for all the friends and family that stepped in to cover for me when I was too sick. I napped when she napped, and spent a lot of time on the couch while she played in the living room. We did the best we could. I knew it would get better, and that this was temporary, that is what I kept telling myself.

4. Were there any particular words or experiences that helped get you through the stress that you would like to share with our readers?
Two things.. My mom was praying for me while they where driving the 600 miles from their house to ours when I was first diagnosed.. She was deep in prayer when the words. “This is not unto death” came to her. She felt as though God was telling her this, and I held onto those words like a life preserver. The other thing that helped me was a card I had gotten in the mail from a former client and friend, who himself had suffered a terrible accident and broke over 200 bones in his body. He lived and overcame great obstacles, so he knew the uphill battle I was facing. The card had a scripture, Jeremiah 29:11 “For know the plans I have for you” declares the Lord, “Plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” That is what meditated on daily… and still do from time to time.

5. What do you believe was the key to your success? 

Incredible medical care, a sense of humor, and determination. And don’t forget prayer.. lots and lots of prayer. 

6. Are there any positives that you’ve taken from having cancer?

So very many.. My life changed in so many ways, and for the better. The people I’ve met on the journey are amazing, the friendships are on a much more honest level. I don’t have time or energy for games, or people and situations that don’t edify me or my life. I have been able to live a much more real and honest life since the diagnosis. It taught me that life is precious, that our time is limited, and to live the best life we are given. So my house isn’t as clean as it “should” be, or the dishes are left in the sink an extra day.. I prefer to use my time doing things that make memories with my family.. the small stuff just doesn’t matter much anymore in the big picture. Life is what you make of it, and attitude has a lot to do with that.

You can find Heather’s awareness page here: http://www.mesothelioma.com/heather/awareness/

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1 Comment

  1. June 13, 2014 / 6:49 am

    Exposure to asbestos leads to various deadly and rare cancers not only that but lung cancer is also associated with the exposure to asbestos.

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