Mesothelioma Survivor Heather Von St. James Reflects on Mother’s Day

Mesothelioma survivor Heather Von St. James

In true mom fashion, my mother announces, “I’m going to be your mother now…” and dispenses her advice, which is usually right on the money. This was never more true in my life than when I got pregnant with my only child. My pregnancy was easy, but things in my life at the time warranted my mom using that phrase “I’m going to be your mother now” more than once.

My daughter Lily was born on August 4th, and after I called them, my parents jumped in the car and drove 600 miles from their home to come meet Lily and help us out for those first few hectic days at home. Mom’s steady guidance was much appreciated and watching her as “grandma” was heartwarming. All too soon they left for home, but I was comforted to know my mom was just a phone call away if I needed her.

Then the unthinkable happened. When my baby girl was just 3 ½ months old, I was diagnosed with a terminal cancer called mesothelioma. Here I was, a brand-new mom, and we were being told I had just 15 months to live. All I could think about was how my little baby girl needed her mom, and how right now, I needed mine. Mom immediately came in and made calm out of chaos, by taking over the day-to-day running of the home and caring for Lily while I was wrapped up in a whirlwind of medical appointments.

Leaving for Treatment

I was referred to a mesothelioma specialist in Boston who gave us the hope we so desperately needed. It was there I found out I was a perfect candidate for a surgical procedure called an extrapleural pneumonectomy, which basically meant they would remove my entire lung. But a hospital in Boston was no place for a baby, and I didn’t want Lily being shuffled back and forth between family members. I wanted stability for her more than anything. My parents graciously stepped in and offered to take Lily to live with them while I went through surgery, then I would stay with them to recover.

The day came to leave for Boston, and Lily to go with my mom. We all went to the airport and waited at our gate together. We sat there, somber, saying our uncertain goodbyes, while holding back tears. We had no idea if this would be the last time I would see my baby girl, and the possibility of that hung heavy in the air around us. Once we boarded the plane, the tears fell in earnest. To say I was scared was an understatement.

It wasn’t until long after that my mom confessed to me that she had a full-on panic attack at the idea of being mom to Lily. After all, it had been about 36 years since she had had a baby around. She was probably wishing her mom was still alive, so she could help her out!

I spent the entire month of February in Boston recovering from the surgery. My mom had borrowed a digital camera to document each day I was away from Lily. This was before the days of smartphones, Facebook and WI-FI, so every day she would email photos and a journal entry. I watched my baby girl grow and change through her sixth month of life by looking at grainy black and white photos my husband printed from those emails in the family lounge at the hospital.

Back to Being Mom

Four weeks later, I was able to return home. I was still weak from surgery and needed a wheelchair to get around the airport, a little fact I neglected to tell my mom when she came to get me. She was not prepared to see how frail I had become, and the look of shock on her face was plain as day. She tried to hide her surprise, and the look of fear was replaced by determination as she gathered my bags and got me into the car to head home and finally be reunited with my baby.

However, to my surprise, she announced, “I’m going to be your mother now,” and explained that Lily had started throwing up that morning, so our reunion would have to wait. In my weakened state, I had to avoid getting sick at all costs. Finally, a couple of days later, I was able to see my baby girl again. My dad sat her on my lap, she looked up at me with her big eyes, uncertain about who I was. She looked to my mom, the woman who had essentially been her mother for the last month for reassurance. I then started singing a song I used to sing to her while she nursed. All of the sudden, she smiled a huge smile and rested her head against my chest.

Just like that, the switch happened. My mom went back to being grandma, and I was back to being mom.

I’m happy to say that my surgery and subsequent mesothelioma treatments worked, as I remain cancer-free 13 years later, and that sweet baby girl who had two moms in the beginning is now a precocious teen with an awesome grandma she calls Mae Mae.

Throughout these last 13 years, there have been many more times I have had to rely on my mom for advice and guidance, and she always steers me in the right direction. And when my 13-year-old, who is already wise beyond her years, asks me for advice? I often preface it with: “I’m going to be your mother now…”