When Heather Von St. James was 36 year old she went through two enormous life changes. After seven years of marriage, Heather and her husband Cameron decided they wanted to have a baby. In August of 2005 their beautiful baby girl Lily was born. They were ecstatic! The two could not wait to grow old together, raising their child.
The problem was that in the months to follow Heather felt awful. Something felt very off, and soon she was losing weight–nearly five to seven pounds per week. It was clear to her and her husband that something was wrong. Doctors were beginning to make their way through the list of the simple things. By the middle of October she felt like a “truck was parked on her chest” and she could not breathe. That’s when she got the diagnosis: malignant pleural mesothelioma.
Cameron recalled the look on Heather’s face when they doctor gave her the diagnosis. “Sheer terror”, he described it as. They knew it was bad, and after doing more research they learned just how dire the situation was. Mesothelioma is a cancer caused by exposure to asbestos. It is very rare and aggressive, affecting either the lungs, abdomen or heart. It’s latency period ranges between ten and fifty years, so diagnosis usually takes a while after the initial exposure.
Typically people are diagnosed with mesothelioma later in life, due to the long latency period, however, Heather received her diagnosis at the young age of 36 because she was exposed as a child. Unbeknownst to her and her family, she had been putting on her father’s dust and asbestos covered jacket to play and do chores. She was inhaling toxic fibers that they had no idea would give her cancer.
When she was given her diagnosis, Heather was told she had fifteen months to live. She knew that she had to defy the odds the doctor gave her. She had to do it not only for her own life, but for her daughter. She knew she could not let Lily grow up without a mother, and throughout surgery and treatment Cameron reminded her of that. There were many times she felt like giving up, but Cam’s reassurance and support kept Heather going.
To begin the journey, Lily went to stay with Heather’s parents in South Dakota, while Heather and Cam flew to Boston, where Heather would have her surgery. She had her lung removed at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. She stayed there to recover and once she was ready to leave she headed back to stay in South Dakota with Lily and her parents. She was still not able to care for Lily on her home, so they would help, while Cameron returned to their home in Minnesota to work.
This time was very difficult for them, having Cam over 600 miles away, working to pay the bills. They made it work though. “In that three months, while I was recovering, Cameron was only able to see Lily for three days,” Heather explained. Their situation was far from ideal, but it was necessary. “It’s what we had to do in order to get by.”
While in South Dakota, Heather went through chemotherapy treatment, followed by thirty days straight of radiation. She felt as though her body was being cooked from the inside out, and there were moments where she felt like she could not continue. The nurses held her hand and comforted her, telling her she could stop if she wanted–but Heather knew she could not stop there. She had to finish the treatment and get better.
As a survivor, Heather has made it her mission to spread awareness for mesothelioma and the dangers of asbestos exposure. She lobbies congress to have asbestos banned in the United States. It is also her goal to spread hope for others battling mesothelioma. “There’s more hope now than there ever was, so don’t give up!”