Cameron Von St. James is a father, caregiver, and mesothelioma advocate. His wife Heather was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2005 shortly after giving birth to her baby girl. Heather is now a 10-year mesothelioma survivor. She and Cameron work to spread awareness the disease and issues facing mesothelioma patients and caregivers. We are proud to feature them on our blog to help others cultivate a better understanding of mesothelioma.
What is mesothelioma?
Mesothelioma is a rare and aggressive cancer that’s only known cause is exposure to asbestos. It affects the lining of the organs, and the most common type of mesothelioma is known as pleural mesothelioma, or mesothelioma of the lining of the lungs. Most diagnosed have been exposed to asbestos many years ago, and are given around 1 year to live.
Please share Heather’s story. How did you learn about her diagnosis? What sort of side effects was she having?
A few weeks after giving birth to our baby girl, Heather began having some odd symptoms. She was tired, had shortness of breath and began losing a lot of weight really fast. She was losing about five to nine pounds a week. Finally, she went to her doctor.
We started ruling out the simple stuff. The doctor thought maybe Heather had postpartum condition such as a heart virus. He ordered a chest X-ray because they were still looking for postpartum related problems. What they found was fluid, which led to her diagnosis of pleural mesothelioma cancer.
We were shocked that Heather, a 36 year old woman, had something most consider as an “old man’s disease”. Without treatment, Heather was given 15 months to live.
What did Heather’s healing journey look like?
Luckily, due to Heather’s age and stage of her cancer, she was a candidate for a treatment option that involved the removal her lung and the use of a heated chemotherapy solution inside her chest cavity. On February 2nd, 2006- groundhogs day- Heather underwent surgery at the Boston based Brigham and Women’s hospital under the care of Dr. David Sugarbaker, a world renowned mesothelioma surgeon who was known as the best in the world.
After an 18-day hospital stay, Heather recovered at her parents home for 2 months. Then she returned home and received a chemotherapy treatment every 3 weeks for 12 weeks. Heather is now a 10 year survivor, and is thriving!
What are you doing now to promote awareness? Why is awareness important to you?
One of the ways that Heather and our family overcame the uncertainty and fear associated with such an
awful prognosis, was humor. Taking from the tradition of firewalking where you write your fear on a plank of wood and walk across it in a fire, Heather’s sister came up with the idea to celebrate a “Lung Leavin’ Day”. Instead of walking across fire, she suggested that we write out our fears on a ceramic plate, and smashed them into the fire.
This has become an annual tradition for our family, we call this event and now fundraiser for mesothelioma research “Lung Leavin’ Day”. We invite family, friends, survivors and caregivers to join us in, literally, throwing our fears to a fire.
This is just one way that we have used Heather’s story to raise awareness and funds for mesothelioma research. Heather and I both blog, speak at events and conferences with organizations such as the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization.
To us, awareness means working toward a global ban on asbestos. There will be no end to mesothelioma until there is an end to asbestos. It also means that maybe just one more person doesn’t have to go through this disease alone. There is a network of mesothelioma survivors, caregivers, and professionals here to help you and your family.
If there was one thing you’d want someone to take away from this blog, what would it be?
That anyone can be at risk for mesothelioma. Heather was exposed to asbestos as a young girl by wearing her father’s work jacket to do outdoor chores. While veterans and tradesmen have some of the highest exposure to asbestos, it was used widespread up through the 1970’s in thousands of applications. Asbestos still exists in older homes and commercial buildings today and it is still not banned in the U.S. and in Canada. It has even recently been found in popular brands of children’s crayons that were produced overseas, and sold in the U.S.
What are other great resources someone can access if they want to learn more?
I would also suggest joining online groups where you can network with other caregivers. Heather is part of the I Had Cancer community. There are also many disease specific websites that you can join.
If you are looking to learn more about mesothelioma, and the history of asbestos use, I would suggest visiting the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance website where you will find a wealth of information on mesothelioma, treatment options and ways to protect yourself from this harmful disease. Heather and I blog regularly with the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance, if you would like to follow along or get in touch please click below.