What’s Your All or Nothing Moment? The Heather Von St. James Story

For those of you that did not know, today is “All or Nothing Day.” Not sure what that means? It is a day dedicated to living life to the fullest, taking chances, and embracing adventure. Most of us need a “wake up call” sometime during our lives to make this sink in.

Have you had an All or Nothing moment?

I’d like to tell you the story of a woman who had her All or Nothing moment 9 years ago. Her name is Heather Von St. James and her husband is Cameron. This is their story.

Heather von St. James Story

“Without treatment, I wouldn’t live past 15 months. In November of 2005 my doctor said I had malignant pleural mesothelioma. He said “cancer”, but all I heard was that I might not be able to raise my three month old daughter, and my husband might become a widower after just six and a half years of marriage. I learned that my father, a man who worked in drywall construction, had unknowingly exposed his own little girl to asbestos through his work jacket. Treatment options were limited and there was no guarantee. Today, I’ve outlived my original prognosis and continue to raise awareness of this terrible disease.”

I kept thinking how surreal all of this was. This stuff happened to other people, not me. But, here I was, going through it.

Heather sat in a cold, small, family waiting room after having had a CT scan of her chest to find out what was causing her breathlessness, her sallow skin, her relentless exhaustion. An hour earlier, she’d had a procedure done called a thoracentesis to remove fluid that had built up around her left lung.

Heather had been a smoker long before she became pregnant with her daughter. She worked around all types of products in the salon that she breathed in every day for the last 15 years.  The doctor arrived finally and explained that she did indeed have a mass in the lower left portion of her lung. He said more tests needed to be done, and they scheduled Heather for a CT-assisted needle biopsy the following day and sent her home.

Standing in the entrance of the hospital, waiting for Cam to pick her up, tears silently streamed down her cheeks. She was reacting the way any mother would. The only word that radiated through her mind over and over again was cancer. That evening, they called family and informed them what was going on, and Heather’s parents dropped everything and drove 600 miles the next day to be with her and help out with Lily, who was only a few months old.

heather and lilyThe biopsy didn’t take long, and Heather was home again that afternoon. Then the waiting began. The doctor told Heather on Thursday that the pathologist wanted confirmation, so her tissue was sent to the Mayo Clinic for a second opinion, and upon its return, he would call her. A curt “yes” that it was a tumor was all that she had to work with.

A week went by, and the doctor called to ask that both Heather and Cam meet with him in his office.

On November 21, 2005 at 1:30 p.m., Heather learned that she had malignant pleural mesothelioma and her life was forever altered in that instant. When the doctor asked if Heather’s father was a miner, or if he had ever worked with asbestos, Heather saw herself as a child, doing what we all have done at least once. Wearing her father’s jacket, white and crusty from drywall dust. She snapped back to the present when she heard the doctor say, “If you don’t do anything, you have about 15 months to live.”

Heather underwent an experimental procedure specialized by Brigham and Women’s Hospital that, when successful, would give her another 10 years to live.

That loss of control you thought you had over your life is another fear so many face, and we do everything possible to get control of the situation. To some, that can be denial. Others try to learn as much as possible and research every single detail of what they’re facing. I speak from experience when I say that neither way is the healthiest thing to do, but you never know how you will react until faced with the situation.

So many fears surface. Front and center in your mind. During the daylight hours, with daily life to keep you occupied, it’s pretty easy to not let them take over. Late at night, when the house is quiet, the kids and your husband asleep, is an entirely different matter.

You tiptoe into your children’s rooms, watching them sleep, and that biggest fear – of not being around to raise them and watch them grow – takes hold of your heart and your mind. The hot tears, the fist shoved in your mouth to keep you from crying out in anguish and waking them, the desperate prayers begging God to please keep you here to raise them. They need you.

It is during those quiet still moments, when something replaces the fear. It’s called Determination. Heather wasn’t going to let the cancer win. She was going to do everything she could to beat it.

Heather, Cam and Lily Von St. James - True Survivors

Heather, Cam and Lily – 10 years after Heather’s diagnosis

Heather still fights every day, not just against the cancer, but to bring awareness to others. We are honored that she and Cam asked us to share their story. Here’s how you can help Heather and Cam with bringing awareness to others.

  • Follow Heather’s Blog – Beating the Odds as she takes you through 10 years in 10 months.
  • Stay connected with Heather and Cam on Twitter
  • Stay connected with Heather and Cam on Facebook
  • Stay connected with Heather and Cam on Google+
  • Follow the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance Blog for all the latest from their talented authors and advocates to find out what is being done

Asbestos Awareness

  • 30 million pounds of asbestos are still used each year in the United States (Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance)
  • 700,000 schools and buildings in the United States still contain asbestos insulation. (Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance)
  • The United States and Canada are the only two industrial western nations where asbestos is still not banned. (ADAO)
  • About 3 out of 4 people with malignant mesothelioma are over age 65. The disease is four times more common in men than women. (Roswell Park Cancer Institution)
  • More than 107,000 people die each year from asbestos-related diseases (ADAO)
  • Asbestos is the #1 cause of occupational cancer, causing 54% of those deaths (Office of Compliance)

My Personal Observations

I have smoked since I was 14 years old. I’ve also tried to quit several times. One of my biggest fears is getting cancer, but even with that in the back of my mind – always – I’ve been unable to quit. Studies show a link between smoking and mesothelioma. Smokers face up to a 9000% greater chance of contracting asbestos cancer than those who don’t.

I pray every day that I remain healthy. I would like to think; however, that should the unthinkable ever happen and I find myself in a small, cold waiting room in the doctor’s office, that I would be able to muster the courage and determination that Heather has to fight, to fight with every fiber of my being. And yes, I am going to try quitting – again. Sooner or later I’m going to break this addiction – one way or another.

Heather, thank you for allowing me to share your story. Cam, thank you for being the wonderful husband you have been to Heather and supporting her through everything. Most of all, thank you Lily, for that infectious grin and being the determination and fight that drove your mom to be the amazing, strong, passionate survivor that she is today.

Don’t wait for a tomorrow. Don’t wait for a someday. Don’t wait till you have ‘enough’ of whatever you think you need. Live in the moment. Love in the moment. Take chances. Be adventurous. Grab life by the reins and never let go.

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