I’m Heather Von St. James, a wife, mother, and a rare cancer survivor. I was diagnosed with mesothelioma at 36, just after I had my daughter Lily.
Mesothelioma is a cancer that’s caused by exposure to asbestos, which you can read more about here. It seems like everyone knows asbestos is bad for you and has heard of mesothelioma from commercials on the television, but I can assure you asbestos still resides in many buildings in the United States and mesothelioma is considered a very rare disease.
I had been exposed by wearing my dad’s work jacket as a little girl. The smallest amount of exposure to asbestos changed my life forever. A mesothelioma diagnosis, even today, has a bleak outlook. I was given just 15 months to live. As I was holding my daughter, I knew that I wasn’t going to give up, that I was going to have to fight for my life. Starting that day, I endured radiation, chemotherapy, and a surgery that left me without a left lung.
My life was never the same, even after I became a survivor because having cancer changed me. Since becoming a survivor, my job is to advocate for people who have been exposed to asbestos and suffer from asbestos related diseases.
The purpose of my efforts isn’t just to let people know that asbestos is still an issue, it’s to let people know that this issue often hits closer to home than we would ever care to admit. I wish I could tell you how many times I have reached out to someone about a campaign only to have them tell me that they just found out there is asbestos in their home or their children’s school.
Unfortunately, there is no safe amount of exposure to asbestos so if it isn’t removed correctly and with all the right precautions, there is a risk. Mesothelioma is caused when asbestos fibers become lodged in the tissue inside a person’s body.
The most common kind, pleural mesothelioma, occurs in the lungs and that was what I suffered from. The other most common types of mesothelioma include pericardial and peritoneal though there are a few others. Unfortunately, for all types of mesothelioma, the prognosis is never good. Facing a mesothelioma diagnosis can be a very frightening time because of its rarity.
Last year, I decided to start an awareness campaign that goes hand in hand with what I experienced as a survivor to bring awareness to mesothelioma as a rare cancer, but also to encourage people to live their lives to the fullest no matter what. All or Nothing Day is July 26th. It’s a day that encourages everyone to give something their all, something they may not have on any other day.
For me, I began living my life to its fullest when I was a new mother who was diagnosed with a terminal cancer. With the help of my parents and husband, I dove headlong into the world of cancer treatments and surgeries, losing the first few months of my daughter’s life and my lung to boot. Even now as a survivor, I try my best to live with the “all or nothing” mentality.
I try to use my story to encourage not only cancer patients and survivors, but everyone to really take hold of the life that they’re given, to do what they love and enjoy the journey.