My Mesothelioma Story | Part 3: How I Went From Surgery to Recovery

Heather Von St. James lies in a hospital bed, post-surgery.

I was diagnosed with a cancer called mesothelioma in November 2005, just months after giving birth.

After my diagnosis, I made up my mind to do whatever I could to recover. I knew I had to be there for my newborn baby. This is the story of my mesothelioma treatment process.

Getting My Mesothelioma Surgery in Boston

We arrived in Boston on January 30th. I had two days’ worth of preoperative (pre-op) appointments ahead of me before my surgery. They started bright and early the next morning and included:

The list goes on and on. By the end of the day, I felt like a human pin cushion and was exhausted. On February 1st, I checked into the hospital late in the day to prepare for surgery the next morning.

As I got settled into my room for the long night ahead, I sent my husband Cam back to the rental home to get some rest. I knew that the next day would be long and nerve-wracking for him.

The Day of My Surgery

They came to my room at 6:00 am to wheel me down to the pre-op area. I was so nervous and I hadn’t gotten much sleep. I had a constant conversation with God going on in my head, praying that the surgery would be successful.

The pre-op staging area is a big room with little, curtained off areas where they put the gurneys. Nurses, orderlies and anesthesiologists were all there getting everything prepped. I felt incredibly alone and scared, and tried unsuccessfully to hold back the tears.

It all felt so surreal. Only 6 months ago, I was celebrating the birth of my baby and all that parenthood brings. And now I was here. Alone, terrified and facing the biggest battle of my life.

The pre-surgery preparation consisted of about a dozen people asking my name and birthdate, before confirming I was there for a left lung resection. I had various intravenous (IV) catheters placed and the anesthetist explained how things would go.

I kept looking at the entryway, waiting to see Cam, hoping he didn’t get lost and would be here with me before I went in. Keep in mind this was 2006, long before smart phones, messenger apps and social media. We had cell phones, but he had mine for safekeeping while I was in surgery.

Not even five minutes later, I looked up and there he was, backpack in hand, filled with books and things to keep him occupied while I was in surgery. I sobbed when I saw him, thanking God that he made it. He just hugged me and kept telling me it would be alright. My tears flowed in earnest, but I felt calmer and more confident.

My Surgery and Beyond

Before long, the anesthetist came over and started to administer the first of the drugs. After that? I don’t remember much, just being wheeled through brightly lit hallways, into a cold operating suite. I vaguely remember being transferred to the operating table from the gurney and thinking how cold the room was. Next thing I knew, I was waking up in the postoperative area.

My Surgical Procedure

My surgery was an extrapleural pneumonectomy, or EPP. The EPP procedure involves removing a lot of stuff from your body. My EPP surgery removed my lung, part of my diaphragm and the linings of my lung (pleura) and heart (pericardium).

My doctor replaced the missing part of my diaphragm and my pericardium with Gore-Tex, a synthetic mesh. After the surgery, the doctors applied a heated chemotherapy wash in my chest cavity to help kill remaining tumor cells.

I’d made it, I was alive. The surgery was a success and I was now living with one lung and a diaphragm that was half made of Gore-Tex. What came next was the real work: my recovery.

18 Years of Survivorship

That was all 18 years ago.

Now, I treat each February 2nd that passes like my own personal holiday, because I did it. I survived and recovered. I call this day Lung Leavin’ Day. I fulfilled my first goal: to survive. The next months (and years) pushed me to fulfill my next goal: to recover and be there to see my child grow up.