There’s a lot more to this picture of Heather Von St. James and her daughter Lily than you see—battle scars, miracles, loss, courage, humor and triumph. Well, the courage and humor shows in their eyes.
Their journey began in 2005. Shortly after Heather and her husband Cameron welcomed Lily into the world, Heather was diagnosed with mesothelioma. Doctors told the new mother that she had only fifteen months to live.
If you’ve never heard of mesothelioma, you’re not alone. Those most familiar with it are the ones diagnosed with it. Mesothelioma is a rare and deadly form of cancer that attacks the lining of the body cavity called the mesothelium. And the pretty, delicate gossamer in the photo below is the killer responsible for it.
Asbestos is the only known cause of mesothelioma, a rare cancer that lies dormant in the body for 20-50 years after exposure. Mesothelioma treatments are available, but for many people a cure is not possible. Yet nine years after her diagnosis, Heather is counted among the survivors. Her recovery from the disease is clinically unique because of her young age at the time of her diagnosis. Typically, patients are older and even with treatment, have a 6 to 9 month median survival rate. Fighting the battle wasn’t easy for Heather, Cameron and Lily. It was won with great sacrifice. Namely, one of Heather’s lungs.
I was a candidate for a surgery called an extrapleural pneumonectomy. It’s a huge surgery that includes the removal of the affected lung, pleura (the lining around the lung where the cancer was), the left half of my diaphragm and the lining of my heart; both my diaphragm and heart lining were replaced with surgical gortex. My sixth rib was also removed so the surgeon would have better access to the chest cavity. This is no routine surgery, and it was made worse by the fact that I was a new mom. My baby would be turning six months old two days after my surgery.
Choosing to laugh instead of cry, Heather, Cameron and Heather’s sister knew that a sense of humor was crucial to alleviate fear and successfully defeat the cancer. When Heather learned her surgery was scheduled for Groundhog’s Day, she nicknamed her tumor Punxsutawney Phil. As the radical surgery approached, Heather and her family decided it would be a day to celebrate. After all, it was going to save her life. Hence, February 2nd was christened Lung Leavin’ Day (the day her lung left). The celebration has grown every year since 2005, and recently Heather, Cameron and Lily started using the occasion as a fundraiser for mesothelioma cancer.
Today, September 26, is the official Mesothelioma Awareness Day. Join Heather Von St. James in her crusade against this deadly disease by sharing information about it with others.
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