Unbeaten: The Triumph of Heather Von St. James Over Mesothelioma

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Heather Von St. James, mother, pleural mesothelioma cancer survivor, advocate.
Photo courtesy of fredhutch.org

Where we are is an amazing world -- yes, often a chaotic place, but the presence of some people in it defies everything that makes us feel we’re all just in one big ball of a mess. Some of these people extend a hand to make sure we make it through hurdles, and some live to inspire us -- reminding us never to give up and just fight because sometimes, that is the only option left for us.

The magic of the internet paved the way for Heather Von St. James and myself to “meet”. I’m telling you her story today because I have committed to helping her spread awareness about a disease called mesothelioma, and because hers is a story that could spark hope in places where there is none. 

Everyone is living on a fast lane, and when we experience shortness of breath and fatigue and we look back at a pale person on the mirror, we shrug it off and say, I’m okay. Heather, however, wanted to know what was causing her to be sick and went to see a doctor. After a series of tests and biopsies, she was later diagnosed with malignant pleural mesothelioma. Meso what? Exactly Heather’s thought when she was told she had mesothelioma cancer, because it is a disease that rarely affects women. What had caused it? She was only 36 and was told that she had only 15 months to live. 

Heather was not only young, she had also just given birth to a beautiful baby and wanted nothing more than to dedicate her life to raising Lily, and to continue living the life that she and her husband Cameron had been building together. That had to change -- a battle was heading her way and she was determined to win it.

Cameron, Lily and Heather. Photo courtesy of cancerclub.com

Why should we be concerned about asbestos exposure?

Heather’s father would come home with a jacket covered with asbestos. She had no idea that by simply being near it would have a serious impact on her health many years later. She was only nine when she was exposed to asbestos, so why was she diagnosed with mesothelioma cancer more than two decades later? The microscopic, fibrous mineral could remain dormant in the human body for up to 30 years. Sadly, the damage that asbestos does to the body is often not detected until it has reached a later stage. According to mesothelioma.com, “The relative five-year survival rate for mesothelioma is about 10 percent, a number that is significantly higher than it was a few decades ago.”

Asbestos is a substance that was once considered ideal for construction because of its low cost and availability. It was prefered because it was effective for moisture, acoustic control and thermal insulation. Asbestos was not only cheap, it was also a “versatile” substance that was mixed into paints, adhesives, appliances and metal ware. Basically, there was a time when it was everywhere.

A campaign against the use of asbestos was launched worldwide 20 years ago, but unfortunately, the substance is still being used in most countries today. In Asia, there is still a huge concern over possible asbestos exposure because of the vibrant construction industry. In the U.S., the use of asbestos is still legal.

What do we need to know about mesothelioma?

I have not heard of mesothelioma cancer until I read Heather’s battle with it. Mesothelioma is a type of cancer that is specifically caused by asbestos. It affects the membrane lining of the lungs and abdomen. There is no known cure for mesothelioma, but treatments such as chemotherapy and surgery could help increase the life expectancy of a person affected by this type of cancer. 

Heather had to go through extrapleural pneumonectomy, which meant that her affected lung, as well as the left half of her diaphragm, the lining of her heart and her sixth rib, had to be removed. The greatest concern prior to her surgery was the fact that she had just recently delivered a baby.

Fast forward today, Heather is celebrating her 10th year as a mesothelioma survivor. She is a mesothelioma advocate who has actively been working on campaigns to raise awareness about asbestos exposure and mesothelioma. She has engaged people in spreading this awareness, and  has tirelessly been empowering and inspiring other mesothelioma survivors and their families around the globe.

I am hoping that in my own little way, I can help in making people aware about the presence of this invisible killer in our environment. Please join Heather Von St. James in spreading awareness about mesothelioma and her call to ban the use of asbestos completely. Learn more about her and mesothelioma at The Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance Blog.

Heather’s story has inspired me to pay tribute to other cancer survivors who have made an impact in my personal life. Read that story on my next post.

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