Heather Von St James is a mesothelioma cancer survivor and a guest blogger for the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance.
The date was November 21, 2005. I remember it vividly. It was a chilly autumn day in Minneapolis, and I received the shock of my young lifetime. In addition to my role as a mother to three-month-old Lily, it was that day that I received a new title. I was diagnosed as a cancer patient. A feeling of dread and panic came over me. “What can I do?” “Who would take care of my young daughter?”
Luckily, I was not alone. My family came to support me soon after the news was shared with them. My parents drove over 600 miles just to come hold my hands and help me think this cancer thing through. My sister and her husband also came, and we decided together that Lily would stay with my parents while my husband, Cameron, and I worked out treatment options.
A previous x-ray had shown that there was a liter of fluid surrounding one of my lungs. I saw a thoracic specialist who drained the fluid and sent me for more tests to figure out why it had accumulated. The CT scan results revealed the culprit — there was a mass on my left lung. Biopsies confirmed that the growth was malignant. I had pleural mesothelioma. From the pure joy of having our first daughter to the terrifying dread of facing a cancer diagnosis, our lives had turned into a roller coaster of emotions over the course of only months.
Due to the extreme nature of a cancer diagnosis, I wanted an aggressive treatment. My husband and I decided that we simply must travel to Boston and meet with Dr. David Sugarbaker, one of the world’s leading cancer specialists. We had learned of his groundbreaking Extrapleural Pneumonectomy surgery and knew that it was the right choice for us. After a consultation with Dr. Sugarbaker, we scheduled surgery for February 2, 2006. My mother flew to Minneapolis a week prior to help us pack and prepare. She flew home with Lily on the day that Cameron and I departed for Boston.
At 7:30 a.m. I entered surgery. The procedure, which included inter-operative chemotherapy treatments, took 7 1/2 hours from anesthesia to completion but had very few complications. It was another 18 days before I was released from the hospital. During this time, Cameron helped me communicate with my parents through e-mail. Pictures of Lily were sent every day and printed in black-and-white. I saw Lily’s six-month milestone on a grainy photocopy of an e-mail image. The distance that separated us, however, strengthened my resolve to recover and get home to Lily.
Though I left Boston one month after my surgery, on March 2nd, we did not immediately return to Minneapolis. I still had some recovering to do, so I moved in with my parents for the following two months. Lily and I regained our mother-daughter bond quickly, and I grew strong enough to care for her on my own. I saw what a deep bond she had made with my parents during my surgery, and I hope that it is enduring. Lily and I returned to Cameron in Minneapolis in May, reuniting my family. Today, I am well. I am happy. I am cancer free.