Heather's Story Towards Health & Overcoming Mesothelioma

Happy Thursday everyone! I have a completely different blog topic today, but when Heather reached out to me with her story of recovering from a rare cancer (malignant pleural mesothelioma), I had to share. I used to work in the oncology field and spent time on a thoracic floor with a lot of people with mesothelioma. She wanted to share her story, as she was diagnoses 9 years ago around the holidays, and more about this rare disease to spread awareness.

She shares her story below, but be sure to watch her powerful video of overcoming the odds here too. I really had to share because of her attitude and hope during a time that I'm sure felt overwhelming and hopeless. Entering the holidays, keep this mindset of hope with whatever you are doing.

Heather and family
Heather Von St. James has fond memories of hugging her father when he would return home from work, from riding in his car, from wearing his work coat around the house as a little girl. But, 20 years later, those memories carried a heavy weight when she was diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma from exposure to asbestos. Her father was a drywall worker, constantly handling asbestos, and, like in most households, his clothing was laundered with the rest of the family’s clothes.

Pleural mesothelioma cancer is the most serious of all asbestos related diseases and affects the protective lining of the chest cavity and lungs. The survival rate is incredibly low—less than 10 percent.

Heather and her husband Cameron were supposed to be starting their most exciting chapter together—Heather had just given birth to their daughter Lily three months before.

Heather and Cameron
“I wanted my daughter to know all my quirky craziness, I didn’t want her to grow up without a mother. I didn’t want my husband to raise our daughter alone,” Heather says.

“Once the shock wore off, it was pure determination. What do I need to do to get rid of it? There was no dying in the equation. I knew I would survive it. I have always been an optimist and accused of wearing rose colored glasses and in this situation, it served me well.”

Time wasn’t on their side and Heather and Cameron had to make a bold choice—quickly. There were several clinical trials available, but which one was right for Heather? They elected a new treatment out of Boston, which 9 years ago, was a gamble—a very aggressive intraoperative heated chemotherapy treatment.

Heather and Cameron handed their newborn daughter off to her parents and flew from Minnesota to Boston to have an 8-hour surgery which would remove her left lung, half of her diaphragm, her 6th rib, and the pleura or lining around her heart and remaining lung—a procedure so delicate it can be compared to removing the membrane from an egg without breaking the shell. After that, there would be a 140 degree F heated chemo wash washed and rocked throughout her chest for an hour.

“Being part of a clinical trials means you can affect research for the next generation of patients and that’s important to me—I can help people in the future by participating now—even if the treatment didn’t work—I knew I was helping lay the ground work for better treatments. It’s because of clinical trials that we are getting somewhere with mesothelioma.”

A chemotherapy regiment would follow. As a former salon-owner, Heather admits to dressing to the 9’s for each treatment. “I’ll be dammed if I was going to look as sick as I felt when I had chemo,” Heather laughs.

Nine years later, Heather has defied the odds. She is cancer-free. She’s become an advocate for mesothelioma patients, even celebrating the date of her surgery every year with a party called “Lung Leaving Day” to raise money for the disease.

Heather’s diagnosis weighed heavily on her father. “My dad had a lot of guilt and anger, but I never blamed him. He was just providing for his family It’s truly a victims disease. I blamed the company—they knew how dangerous asbestos was.”

Seeking comfort, he visited their pastor, who assured him that Heather had bigger plans. “My pastor told my dad that I was going to be a lighthouse—a beacon of hope for people crashing on the rocks—and that’s what I hope to be. A symbol of hope.”

Standing 5’8 feet tall, healthy, and with bleach blonde hair—a vivacious mother, committed to a cause, that’s exactly what she is.

To find more from Heather, she blogs for Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance.