Friends, I am so excited to share with you this amazing mama’s story. May is National Cancer Research Month, and I hope that you take a special moment this month to send a kind thought or prayer for our brothers and sisters whose lives are changed by cancer. I am so grateful to be able to share with you this interview with cancer fighter, survivor, and excellent mother Heather Von St. James. This is her story:
First of all, I would like to share how grateful I am to be doing this interview with you! Your story is truly amazing and inspirational. Would you give us a little background information on your life and why you chose to dedicate your time to spreading awareness about cancer, particularly mesothelioma?
Thank you so much for your willingness to help me spread the word. This is how a movement starts, one voice at a time. 🙂
I was a business owner and stylist in a busy salon for 14 years up until my diagnosis in 2005. I was diagnosed with malignant pleural mesothelioma on November 21st, 2005, just 3 1/2 months after the birth of my only child. After I made it through surgery, chemo and radiation, I left my last radiation appt with a vast feeling of abandonment. I had spent the last year fighting for my life every day. I had medical appointments weekly, if not daily. It consumed my life. You would think I would be happy to be done. On one hand I was, but on the other, I felt lost, I had sold my business, and knew going back to work in the salon was not a possibility, not with one lung and all I had been through. I felt very alone, and decided that I needed to help other people. I started by talking with patients while I was at my appointments in Boston, then got involved with a couple of non profits dedicated to mesothelioma and asbestos awareness. It was through these that I met other meso patients and was able to help others with the same diagnosis as mine. Helping others gets me out of my head. And helping people navigate those first few scary months helps them with their battle. I was surprised at the number of people who had never heard of this disease until it struck them. I decided awareness is where it all starts. Just think, 15 years ago, pink was just color little girls wore, now Pink is synonymous with breast cancer awareness. You can’t see pink without thinking about it. I want people to be that aware of mesothelioma.
You discovered that you had cancer when your daughter was just 3 ½ months old, how did you balance caring for your health and caring for a newborn?
I had a ton of help. You know the saying, “it takes a village”. Well, I had a village surround me and help me take care of my daughter. Friends, family, neighbors, so many people willing to help. At one point, I was not physically able to care for her. It was right after my surgery. We lived with my parents at that time, and they basically raised Lily while I recovered from surgery. When I was going through treatment, I had a couple of nannies that would help out. I slept when Lily slept, and took advantage of every offer of help that came along. I could not have managed without that incredible support system.
What advice would you give to new mothers, or mothers of any age battling cancer?
You can’t do it all. You can’t be super mom, super wife, work, and battle cancer. Something has to give, and it is okay to let others in to help. When you feel good, make that quality time with your kids. The cleaning can wait, or hire it done. Ask someone to help with laundry. People WANT to help and this is the time to let them. Get rid of the pride, and let them in. When you start feeling better, then tackle all that stuff and figure out what is the most important and go from there.
What screening tools are available that every mother should be aware of?
Sadly, there is no screening for mesothelioma. If you think you have been exposed to asbestos make sure to tell your doctor so it’s in his notes. If some symptoms start happening, then a ct scan would be in order to check. It is something that is in the process of researching right now. More early detection tests but nothing is available right this moment.
How can we, on an individual basis, work to bring awareness to victims and fight to put an end to cancer?
I think supporting cancer research is key. Find a charity or non profit that specifically funds research, or a University with a good program in the type of cancer you want to support. Cancer is not just one disease. It is a very complex series of maladies that affect every part of the body and each responds differently to different treatment. Call your government officials and urge them to support cancer research with their allocations. The National Institute of Health is vital in the war against cancer, and without government funding, it cannot continue to function.
Many people wonder what to say or do to help a friend suffering from cancer. Do you have any advice on what to say, or what NOT to say? How can friends and family, or even acquaintances be the best support team they can be?
Don’t say. “It’s all part of God’s Plan” Or “At least it’s the Good type of cancer” or “Well, You LOOK good” (I personally hated that one. What was I supposed to look like?) There are so many things NOT to say. Just be kind, courteous and attentive. Don’t desert your friend in their time of need. Cancer isn’t contagious. You can’t get it from them. Ask if you can help them make a list of ways people can help them. Offer to make a meal, do laundry, clean the house, or the bathroom at least. Bring us a gift basket of comforting things such as fuzzy socks, a stuffed animal, a book of funny things. Pray with us, pray for us. But most of all, just check on us. I had people who I thought would be there for me disappear and have not heard from them since. That hurt so bad. But others who I never dreamed of, showed up and were such a huge help to me. Those people are still in my life to this day. It’s a balancing act. But just be real, it’s okay to be scared for us. Tell us that so we can get rid of the elephant in the room and talk about more important things…like who will win The Voice. 🙂
Thank you again for your willingness to help!! It is so touching to know there is such great support.
Readers, two places you may be interested in starting if you are interested in supporting research are the Cancer Research Institute or the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance, where Heather is a regular blog contributor. You can read more about her and her amazing survival story here.