Nothing can prepare someone for a diagnosis of cancer. Once the words leave the doctor’s mouth, one of the first thoughts to hit the victim is, “Am I going to die?” And from there, the routines of daily life are upturned and replaced with the battle for survival.
When Heather Von St. James was diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma in 2005, she was only 36 years old. She and her husband Cameron were settling into the beautiful role of parenthood, celebrating the arrival of their daughter Lily Rose who had been born only 3 months earlier. But their dreams of future birthdays, holidays, graduations, and of even seeing their daughter fall in love someday were suddenly shattered in the quiet of a doctor’s office.
Heather’s doctor gave her 15 months to live.
Mesothelioma is a rare – and aggressive – form of cancer, affecting about 3,000 people a year, and is caused by exposure to asbestos. Although Heather had never been exposed to it personally, her father had, when she was little. He unknowingly brought home traces of the substance after he returned from work each day.
Being told that she only had over a year to live shattered her world but didn’t defeat her spirit. Heather and Cameron researched doctors who were known to specifically handle mesothelioma cases, and their search led them to Dr. David Sugarbaker from Brigham and Women’s hospital in Boston. She was considered a candidate for an invasive sugury known as extrapleural pneumonectomy, which would include the removal of her affected lung and a rib.
Throughout the treatment, faith was an anchor to keep her grounded. In particular, Jeremiah 29:11 was her lifeline. The verse was one of hope: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
Her determination to not only fight the cancer, but to also help others fight, slowly began with some inspiration from her sister. Heather was terrified of the surgery to remove her lung, and so her sister brought some humor-relief by calling February 2nd (the day of the surgery) LungLeavin’ Day. A year after her surgery, Heather decided to celebrate the anniversary of LungLeavin’ Day by finding release for fears she had faced and conquered. Her husband built a small fire, and they both wrote down fears onto plates before crashing the plates into the flames.
It was a way to physically find release and to say ‘goodbye’ to fears that were still plaguing them. For Heather, the fear of surgery was still fresh, so her plate focused on the cancer and her fight to defeat it. Years later, however, February 2nd has now grown into a fundraiser to raise money for Mesothelioma research, in addition to helping people let go of fears that keep them from fully living. The little fire is now a bonfire surrounded by family and friends, all writing down their personal fears before smashing the plates into the hot flames.
Heather wrote, “I have a purpose in my life now, a mission. And if I take this tragedy and turn it around to make something good? Then it was all worth it. Lungleavin Day is more than just an anniversary of getting my lung removed, it signifies HOPE, rebirth, moving forward, and conquering those fears that can impede you from achieving what you are meant to do. The night has become a night to be treasured among my circle of friends and family; a night of true celebration and a night of LIFE.”
Heather Von St. James is now a seven-year mesothelioma cancer survivor, defying the odds that had been given her. And while she sees beauty in every day that she now celebrates and lives, she doesn’t stop there. She shares her miracle with others by writing and speaking words of hope. She reaches out to others who share the fear she knows all too well and lets them know that miracles do come true. They can beat their diagnosis!
And she and her husband continue to fight for prevention – and a cure – by raising awareness and funds.
Heather wrote, “I have never asked ‘Why me, God?’ Instead I’ve asked, ‘Why NOT me, God? Use me, use my story, and if it brings hope to one person, I’ve done You proud!’ That is why, to this day, I share my story of hope and of my faith. My faith has been the thing that gets me through. All I have to do is think of all the amazing things that have transpired and all the incredible people I’ve met through my journey. I thank God each and every day for all I have. Do I know how long I’ll be around? No, none of us do. But while I’m here, I want to be what God has put me here to do and that is to be a beacon of hope. I am, after all, a lighthouse.”
Heather is a lighthouse… and an unsung hero. Her determination to use tragedy for good is beautiful, and it was my honor to share her story on my blog today!
This post was written in support of Asbestos awareness week, which is April 1-7th. For more information (or to read more about Heather’s story), click this link.