Hearing your stories is one of my favorite things about this blog. A few months ago I received an email from the Von St James family. Eight years ago Heather was diagnosed with mesothelioma – a rare cancer that kills most people within two years.
1. Heather, tell us a little about yourself.
I grew up in a small town called Spearfish, in the Black Hills of South Dakota. I had worked in a small salon for a few years and wanderlust got the better of me. I decided to drop everything and move to Minneapolis/St Paul, in hopes of a better job and a better life. I’m a city girl at heart. I met my husband after I moved here , worked in a big salon, and eventually became part owner.
At 36, I had my first and only child. Three months after she was born I was diagnosed with malignant pleural mesothelioma. I had to quit working, sell my portion of the business and commit my life to battling this disease. It has been 8 years and I’m still going strong.
2. When your daughter was born you started having some unusual symptoms. What were they? I was tired. BONE tired…more than what I thought a new mom should be, but I chalked it up to breastfeeding and going back to work so quick after having a c-section. I had a low-grade fever that would hit the same time of the day every day. I was loosing weight at an alarming rate. 5-7 pounds a week.
One day I woke up with what felt like a truck parked on my chest. I couldn’t take a deep breath. I became winded and breathless when walking up the stairs or standing for too long. I thought maybe I had pneumonia, but I wasn’t coughing. Also, I was very pale. I had no color in my cheeks or lips. I found out I was extremely anemic and the cancer was the cause of it all.
3. I can’t imagine what it is like to hear a diagnosis of cancer. What did the doctors tell you about your condition and what was going through your mind?
All I really remember is my doctor telling me that I had pleural mesothelioma. My husband is the one who said, “Oh, this is bad”. I just looked back and forth between the two of them not really understanding. He then asked what my dad did for a living.
When I was a little girl my dad worked construction. He would come home from work covered in dust. His jacket would be white and crusty from the drywall dust that he would be sanding off the walls. Anything that I had to do outside I liked wearing my dad’s coat. Unbeknownst to us, it was chock full of asbestos. The cancer I had was actually caused by asbestos exposure and the latency period was 10-40 years.
He then told me the news that if I did nothing, I would only live about 15 months. Chemo and radiation would give me perhaps five years. There was a radical surgery that would give me my best chances – up to 10 years or more. I just kept thinking of my three month old little girl. How she needed a mommy and how my husband needed me to help raiser her. How did this happen? So many questions were flooding my brain. I couldn’t speak.
Thank goodness my husband had a clear mind and can function under stress. He told the doctor to get us to Boston where they did the surgery. My first words were “How do we pay for this?”. I couldn’t fathom the cost involved, but my doctor took care of the insurance. He totally went to bat for me and got my insurance company to cover my surgery and hospital expenses in Boston.
4. I was reading an interview you did and you said that you kept choosing hope over fear. That is an easy thing to say, but a hard thing to do. How did you actually do that?
All I had to do was look at my little girl. I never once asked “Why me?”. Instead I figured, why not me? I was young, otherwise healthy, and I WOULD beat this. And if I did die from it? I would spend eternity dancing on the streets of gold. This gave me great comfort, but I knew I had to beat it.
I wanted to reach out to others and help them right from the beginning. I knew there had to be a purpose for all I was going through and chose to learn as much as I could to inspire others. I was choosing to be a warrior over a victim. I will never be a victim.
5. I have never heard of this type of cancer before. What was the treatment like? And what was the main thing you were looking forward to when it was over?
Surgery was recommended. Following that is chemo and radiation as precautionary treatment. The surgery is brutal and not for everyone. It consists of the removal of the entire lung, the lining around it, the left half of my diaphram and the lining of my heart. They were replaced with surgical grade gor-tex. The doctors also had to remove the 6th rib for ease of entry into the chest cavity. The procedure is called an extra pleural pneumonectomy.
I started the first of four sessions of chemo three months after that. In September of 2006 I had the radiation. By the end of October 2006 I was done. Exactly a year from when my symptoms started.
6. People who face tremendous obstacles and overcome them always seem so brave as I hear their story. Do you feel brave?
I hear that a lot. “You are so brave”. I don’t feel brave. I just followed the advice of an incredible medical team and prayed a lot. Brave? Nope. When I really think about it – TOUGH. Like holy moly look what I went through. I’m one tough mother! Then I come back to reality and just go back to the fact I did what I did to live. Brave? I don’t know.
7. Going through something like this must be life changing. How has being a cancer survivor altered the way you see life.
It has given me so much FREEDOM. I’m serious. I really don’t let a lot of things bug me the way I used to. I’m much more easy going and relaxed. I also feel like I have a lot to offer and want to try and make my corner of the world a little better. So many people helped us and I wanted to give back as much as possible.
Don’t have time for negativity anymore. I quickly found out who my real and true friends were and got rid of negative influences and people in my life. I’m just very happy and I think it shows. Cancer isn’t who I am. It is something that happened to me and knowing that makes life a little sweeter.
Heather, thanks so much for showing us what it looks like to be a warrior over a victim. I know we will all be sending prayers and thoughts your way that you continue to stay healthy. Thanks for inspiring us!
To hear more of Heather’s story and mesothelioma —> click here.
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