Life throws things at you that you never expected. Nobody grows up thinking; “I want to go through cancer during the most challenging and exciting time of my life.” However, life takes twists and turns we never anticipate. I have a wonderful and entrancing daughter who was born August 4, 2005. The pregnancy was easy and uneventful and I was happy to have a new addition in our family. Even with an emergency C-section, things couldn’t have been more perfect. Lily was welcomed into the circle of our love by my husband’s family, my parents, and all of our wonderful friends. We were full of joy from our blessings. Then life changed.
I went back to working full time, but something wasn’t t right. Within a short period of time, I began to feel uncomfortable and off. I had very little energy compared to my usual self. Suddenly, I was out of breath doing the simplest of things, like taking a short walk or doing the laundry. I was tired all the time and playing with my delightful little girl exhausted me. I wanted to be the best mom possible and, even though this could be normal, I wanted to make sure. I went to the doctor and underwent a variety of tests. Unfortunately, the problem was not something as simple as adjusting to being a new mother. It was something much more alarming.
November 21, 2005 will live forever in my mind as the day my life changed forever. A little more than three months after Lily was born – our blessing of a child – I was diagnosed with malignant pleural mesothelioma. This is a cancer that attacks the lining around the lungs. It is caused largely by exposure to asbestos. What I did not know at the time was that I had been exposed to asbestos when I was a child 30 years earlier. The exhaustion and other symptoms I had attributed to motherhood were really symptoms of mesothelioma.
That first appointment was terrifying. I was told I had only 15 months to live if I did not get treatment immediately. My first thought was to my darling Lily. I thought of my husband raising her by himself. I imagined their lives without me and knew that we had to do whatever possible to save my life. My husband and I knew that mesothelioma is a cruel disease and the prognosis was not good.
We flew to Boston to see one of the top mesothelioma specialists in the country and on February 2nd, I had extrapleural pneumenectomy surgery where my left lung was removed. I was in the hospital for 18 days recovering from the surgery and it took another two months of recovery before I was ready to start radiation and chemotherapy treatment.
Amazingly, we were able to still care for our daughter during all of this. Our family and friends pulled together to give us all the support and love and care we needed. Even people we did not ever expect to help us, reached out to provide support when we needed it most. We were amazed at who stepped up for us and surprised by those who turned away. Life challenges have a way of showing you who the important people are in your life.
Meanwhile, back in Boston, my husband and I met wonderful and amazing people. We made new friends and discovered others who were going through the same thing. By surrounding ourselves with inspirational people who were meeting the same challenging with grace and strength, we were able to do it ourselves.
Back in South Dakota, my little girl was growing. She was being weaned off of bottles and learned how to roll around. She was learning how to scoot and do all those things that babies do as they become little people. My parents would send pictures they took and my husband would print them on a black and white community printer. I would look at those grainy pictures and think about how wonderful my little girl was and try not to cry because I was missing so much. She was the reason I was fighting to live, even if it meant sacrificing being with her right then. She was being cared for by people who loved and cherished her as much as I did.
Life is funny. Cancer brought us even closer together as a family and we value and treasure each moment we have now. We do the best we can with what we have, but sometimes we need to be reminded of just how much we have to be thankful for in life.
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.