Heather Von St. James is a new mom and amazing woman who is truly surviving and moving forward. At 36, just three and a half months after giving birth to her daughter, Lily, Heather was diagnosed with mesothelioma. She reached out to us with this powerful message:
“Since May is National Cancer Research Month, I feel it’s my duty to try and spread awareness of this rare, preventable disease. The more people that know about this cancer, the more lives are potentially saved!”
Heather’s passion and energy touched us, and we wanted to share her story. Meet Heather and her beautiful family!
Malignant Pleural Mesothelioma is the official diagnosis I was given. Mesothelioma is a cancer that is almost always caused by asbestos exposure, and mine was no different. I was exposed to asbestos as a child through my father’s work clothes. He worked with it and unbeknownst to him, brought it home on his clothes.
My symptoms started out as weight loss after having Lily. I started losing 5-7 pounds a week after her birth, but we wrote it off as breastfeeding benefits. I lost my appetite and was fatigued and anemic. I also was short of breath, and it felt like a truck parked on my chest. Then the fever started; I had a low grade fever that wouldn’t go away. It started to look like more than just postpartum symptoms.
I was going to be one of those moms that worked and did it all. The job, the child, the home…HA! I went back to work at 4 weeks. I worked in a salon, and although I loved doing hair, it felt wrong to leave Lily home at such a young age. I worked just part-time for a month, but had to go full-time after that. As I got more and more sick, it was all I could do to get out of bed some days, so I took a leave of absence from my job. It was still a struggle and I could not have done it without a HUGE support system of friends and family who pitched in to help out. My husband was amazing. He was my rock and main support through all of it (and still is). He keeps me steady. He knew when I needed rest and was able to take days off of work to help when I needed. It was quite literally the “village” that raised my child.
I went from being on maternity leave to getting a cancer diagnosis in 3 months. Devastated is an understatement. I had to defer my student loan, and thankfully we did not have much credit card debt. Friends had fundraisers for us and raised quite a bit of money that helped us get through some lean times. I also had to travel across the country for my surgery and pay for accommodations and travel, so those funds really helped out to cover those expenses. Through the generosity of many friends, neighbors, and many perfect strangers, we were incredibly blessed.
Mesothelioma is always thought of as that disease they talk about in those commercials — that strikes only old men who have worked with it. That is so not what this disease is about. This disease strikes 10-50 years after exposure to asbestos and the results are deadly. It kills most people within 18 months of diagnosis. Early detection of the disease can save lives, and awareness is the first step. If you know you’ve been exposed to asbestos, or think you have, tell your doctor so it’s in your records.
The newest exposure risk in present day form is home renovation. If you suspect asbestos is present, please get it tested and have it abated by a trained and licensed abatement company. It is nothing to attempt on your own. The Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance has many great resources available.