Lucky 13: Celebrating 13 Years of Survivorship

Mesothelioma Survivor Heather Von St. James

February 2nd, 2019 will mark 13 years since my life-saving surgery done by the late Dr. David Sugarbaker. 13 years was not even something I thought I could achieve all those years ago when I was told I had just 15 months to live. Over the last 13 years, I have had so much to be thankful and grateful for. All I have to do is look at my daughter, who was just a tiny, serious baby when I was diagnosed, and now she is taller than I am – a fact she is all too happy to point out at every moment possible! 13 years of scanxiety, 13 years of advocacy, and 13 years of living for today.

A Look Back at the Last 13 Years

When I look back over the years, I think of all the amazing people I have met on this journey. I can’t help but smile when I think of my surgery buddy, Doug, and how we helped each other through that first uncertain year. Doug passed away seven years later. My heart will always hold him close, but will always hurt from the loss. So many wonderful people, and hand-in-hand with that is the loss of many of them. Survivor’s guilt has been a constant companion. I can’t help but feel it when another warrior passes. I know they would never want me to feel that way, but one wonders, why me? It isn’t something I dwell on, but it is there. What helps soothe it is the continuing support from their loved ones, and how much richer my life is for having known these incredible people.

I’ve had 13 years of incredible opportunities that I am eternally grateful for. Going to Washington D.C. and speaking to our representatives and senators about the desperate need for research and funding for mesothelioma. I’ve learned that there is great power in our stories and sharing them is so important. I’ve worked with Greenpeace, done countless podcasts on everything from green cleaning to mental and physical health. I got to be on a nationally syndicated TV show with Soledad O’Brien discussing the dangers of asbestos. I’ve been interviewed and worked with some incredible people and have had such great opportunities to speak and share my story.

I’ve worked with so many patients and their families and helped bring awareness to mesothelioma and have been recognized for my advocacy by The Points of Light Foundation and WEGO Health. Getting recognized for your hard work is always an incredible feeling. I’m surrounded by people who support me and my mission to help others and bring more awareness to this devastating disease that still too few people know about or understand.

Celebrating Survivorship with Lung Leavin’ Day

13 years of celebrating Lung Leavin’ Day. 13 years of gathering friends and family together to celebrate life. 13 years of writing our fears on a plate – sometimes two – and smashing them into the fire. Over $35,000 raised for mesothelioma research and asbestos education over those years. I think that is what I am most proud of.

My husband and I started the tradition on my first surgery anniversary, just the two of us, outside in subzero temps with a small bonfire and a plate each. I had so many fears that first year that I filled both sides of that plate. As we smashed those plates into the fire, we knew we had to share it with the world. It was something special. Everyone who comes is impacted and takes something away. When we started using the occasion to give back to the community, I felt as though we had come full circle. This is what I was meant to do.

13 years ago, in the dark of night as I laid awake, scared about what would happen on that February 2nd, I prayed to God and asked Him, “Why me?” He told me that I would know in time. And I know now. I’m the lighthouse, the beacon of hope. That is why 13 is lucky, and that is why I’m so thrilled to be celebrating 13 years of surviving mesothelioma.