Today we bring you an incredible story of courage and hope from Heather Von St. James, an incredible lady whose battle with cancer helped her to discover her true purpose in life. Here, in her own words, she tells us about her journey…
11 years ago the bottom dropped out of my world. On November 21, 2005, my life and my family would never be the same again. A cancer diagnosis will do that. Although looking back it wasn’t the ending we were terrified it might be, but the beginning of a future that I’ve created for myself: a new life and one that I live with purpose and passion, especially as I’ve just outlived my best-case prognosis of 10 years.
Just three-and-a-half months after the birth of our daughter Lily, my husband Cameron and I were facing the news that I had malignant pleural mesothelioma. A rare and very aggressive cancer caused by exposure to asbestos. Due to the long latency period, anywhere from 20-50 years, we’d never have known that the asbestos my father unknowingly brought home on his work jacket when I was a child would lead to me developing this kind of cancer – the kind that, on diagnosis, gives most people just 15 months to live. All I could think was that I might not be able to raise my three-month-old daughter, and my husband might become a widower after just six-and-a-half years of marriage.
However it was living through what seemed like a death sentence at the time, and battling through a year of gruelling cancer treatment and recovery that included surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, that has shaped my life. In my darkest hours, when I felt truly isolated, I saw my own strength and this is what inspired me to become a voice for the victims of this wholly preventable cancer.
It was only when I found my voice, quite literally through becoming a speaker at mesothelioma conferences, that my new role in life began to take shape. As a result of connecting with the mesothelioma community – patients, doctors, families and advocates – I found my footing in the years that followed, navigating my new ‘normal’ as a cancer survivor.
Speaking at an event in Washington DC in 2015
I’m so proud of what I’ve accomplished, and of the people who have supported the mesothelioma community in our ongoing work to get asbestos banned in the United States. The mesothelioma community is small, and we count on one another to help each other get through. I am proud to be someone that people can count on, and I’m happy to help every person in need in any way I can. I was determined from the beginning to make a difference, no matter what the future held, and giving back to a community that has given me so much enables me do that.
Needless to say, it’s not always easy. I could focus on all I’ve lost: the career that I loved as a hair stylist and business owner; the left lung that doctors had to remove in surgery during my treatment; the active mother my daughter should have had; and all the friends that I and the mesothelioma community have lost to cancer. But instead, I choose to devote my energy and attention to the work that needs to be done to support our community. From speaking to people who have been newly diagnosed or who are going through treatment, to supporting their families, to raising awareness about mesothelioma and the dangers of asbestos.
My family started Lung Leavin’ Day 10 years ago on the eve of my lung removal and chemo wash surgery. We took inspiration from fire walking, where you write a fear on a plank of wood and walk across it in the fire. Now every year we invite our friends and family to write their fears on a plate, and smash the plate into a bonfire. The event grows bigger every year, and we now use it as a fundraiser for mesothelioma awareness. To date we’ve raised over $18,000.
Of course, some days the losses are too much to bear. At times like these what keeps me going is my wonderful family and the thought of how much more needs to be done to help all those people who desperately need the support of our loving community. From that first loss over 10 years ago, and through each additional one since, I’ve strengthened my resolve to prove that mesothelioma is about the people: the amazing, brave, real people who find themselves being handed a diagnosis. I share my story to raise awareness, I share my story so others know they’re not alone and ultimately, I share my story to spread hope because, in the end, that’s what really matters.
With Cam and Lily
For more information about Heather visit her website https://www.mesothelioma.com/heather/#.WEcrhGQrK3c You can also connect on Twitter @HeatherVSJ and Facebook at: Facebook.com/HeatherVonStJames