Community members often vow to help a family raise a child. My pregnancy progressed without complications until the time of delivery, at which time I required an emergency C-section. I gave birth to my baby on August 4th, 2005. Immediately after her birth, my family and I were surrounded by parents, siblings, and numerous friends. We were thrilled to introduce our new daughter, Lily. Everything was wonderful. However, this was only the calm before the storm.
After a pleasant maternity leave, I returned back to work. I felt fine except for increasing fatigue that eventually left me with no energy. I also had difficulty breathing. I assumed that my body required more recovery time, but I made an appointment with my physician for a professional opinion. I endured a battery of tests before physicians arrived at a conclusion. I received the life altering news on November 21, 2005. I was diagnosed with mesothelioma cancer. A malignancy caused from exposure to asbestos. I learned I had suffered exposure three decades earlier, but it took that long before the symptoms began to show.
Physicians told me I had less than 15 months to live if the condition went untreated. I thought about my baby girl growing up without a mother. I thought about my husband raising her alone. Given the potentially fatal diagnosis, my husband and I agreed upon immediate radical treatment. We boarded a plane for Boston. Trusting the expertise of the oncologist, I had my affected lung removed in February. The surgery and recovery required that I spend three weeks in the hospital. After another eight weeks of recuperation time, I began chemotherapy followed by radiation. I did not perceive that my adult life and starting a family would be without tribulations, but this was far more traumatic than anyone could have anticipated.
My husband and I could not have survived without the assistance, care, and thoughts of family and friends. People we barely knew, or had not seen in years, stepped in to help where we needed it. Ironically, those we depended on the most failed us in our time of need. While my husband and I spent the required time in Boston, Lily stayed with her maternal grandparents. A network of caring people stepped forward to assist them too. Children I cared for as an adolescent, and now grown, gleefully offered to babysit while my parents worked. We received loving support from people I had known as a child. New friendships developed as we met families enduring the same nightmare. The people who enveloped us were the ones who sustained us daily.
Time passed, and my baby was growing quickly. I missed seeing her take that first bite of food and learning to crawl. My parents, back in South Dakota, kept us abreast of Lily’s progress through emails containing black and white photographs. My loving husband located a printer and provided me with copies that I proudly shared with hospital staff. I fought back the tears at not being able to hold her, but kept reminding myself that in the long run, Lily would have her mother. I knew she was receiving the best of care and probably getting a little bit spoiled. Lily and my parents remain close though many miles lie between us.
Though I would prefer never to have suffered from mesothelioma cancer, the lessons along the way make us that much stronger and thankful. My little family and I now treasure life, as we appreciate its delicacy and unpredictability. We also learned to accept the bad with the good because undesired events and tragedies often bring a mountain of blessings.
Heather Von St James is a 43-year-old wife and mother. Upon her diagnosis of mesothelioma, she vowed to be a source of hope for other patients who found themselves with the same diagnosis. Now, over 6 years later, her story has been helping people all over the globe. She continues her advocacy and awareness work by blogging, speaking and sharing her message of hope and healing with others. Check out her story at the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance Blog.