Heather Von St. James
Courageous Mother, Wife and Survivor of Mesothelioma
My entire life I have been accused of being the eternal optimist. It is a trait that has always served me well, but never in my wildest dreams did I ever think that being an optimist, would play a key part in my very survival. When I was diagnosed with on November 21st, 2005, just 3 months after my baby was born, my initial reaction, of course was shock and fear. But once my options were explained to me, my optimistic outlook kicked in full gear. I was given 3 options. I could do nothing, and live maybe 15 months. Undergo chemotherapy and radiation and hope for up to 5 years. Or, I could have a risky surgery called an extrapleural pneumonectomy and increase my chance of survival to 10 years or more. My husband and I immediately opted for the surgery. Dying was not an option.
A Radical Procedure, A Chance at Life
The surgery consisted of the removal of my left lung, the pleura, or lining around the lung (where the cancer originated), the lining of my heart, the 6th rib, and the left half my diaphragm. That, and the lining of my heart were replaced with surgical Gore-Tex ™. This lengthy surgical procedure also included intraoperative heated chemotherapy, a procedure in which a solution of a drug called cisplatin is heated to 140 degrees, pumped into your chest cavity and swirled around for an hour before being pumped back out, or as I like to call it; “the shake and bake.” This procedure is one of the many reasons I am alive.
I made it through the surgery with few complications, and after an 18-day hospital stay and 2 months recovery I was able to return home to start chemotherapy and radiation. This all happened almost 6 years ago, and I am happy to say, I remain cancer free.
So many people assume that having one lung would make life difficult, or would mean I was not as capable of doing so called “normal” things that other people do. But instead of seeing myself with “just one lung” or the glass half empty, I prefer to look at the other side, or as they say, glass half full. I only had cancer in one lung and nowhere else, so in taking the one lung, I’m going to live a lot longer. I think that is pretty awesome! I also don’t see that having one lung would limit my activity level. I still am quite active. I love tending to my flowers in the summer, volunteering at my daughter’s school in the winter and am involved with the mesothelioma community.
I will tell you this, I won’t be running a marathon anytime soon, but I never would have before the cancer so it doesn’t matter! What matters to me is I do my best, and try my hardest to live my life to the fullest. I wake up every day, put those rose colored glasses on and thank the good Lord for my one healthy lung. I have been given another chance at life. I was fortunate enough to be able to quit my job and raise my baby girl. I missed out on the entire 6th month of her life while I had surgery, but instead of mourning, or being sad, I knew I was doing it so I could be around for her many years to come, and being her mom is the greatest thing I’ve ever done.
I do my best to keep up with her. She is now an active 6 year old, and in the first grade. She is my sunshine and keeps me positive. Experiencing life through the eyes of a child gives you a whole new perspective. Having one lung makes no difference in the type of mom I am. I probably don’t do all the things other parents do. I can’t run behind her while she learns to ride a bike without training wheels, but my husband can and I can film it. I can’t carry her on my shoulders, but I can snuggle up with her anytime she wants, or take her to the zoo, or the theater. We do different things than we might have otherwise since the surgery, and radiation did do some lasting damage to some nerves, but in the grand scheme of things, it is a minor annoyance and I choose not to let it bother me. In doing so, I am teaching Lily to also see the bright side of things, and not let certain things limit her. She is learning the lesson well.
When I found out I had mesothelioma, I easily could have given up after reading statistics on the disease. The survival rate was dismal (2%) It’s not very encouraging to read when you are diagnosed with a disease, but instead of giving up, I made up my mind; SOMEONE has to be in that 2%. That someone was going to be me. And now, almost 6 years later, I am considered a long-term survivor. My attitude is this; I survived for a reason, to spread hope and awareness about mesothelioma.
Each Day A Blessing
I’ve been blessed by being involved with the mesothelioma community, and have met some of the most amazing, most resilient and toughest people you will ever know. I’ve been blessed to make friends from all over this world and have been able to make a difference in people’s lives. It’s amazing to think all of this has been possible because of of a diagnosis of cancer 6 years ago. Am I sad, upset or depressed? No. I live my life the best I can. That glass is only getting fuller, or as my favorite quote says:
“Life is a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death.”
As Thanksgiving rolls around, there is so much to be thankful for, my family, my friends, my pets and of course, my life. But, then again, every day is Thanksgiving to me.