Mesothelioma Awareness Day:The Story of a Survivor


Mesothelioma Awareness Day is September 26th. This is a day meant to spread awareness for a very rare and aggressive, but preventable cancer. It’s also a day meant to celebrate those who have and are still fighting their battles with mesothelioma. Whether it has directly impacted your life or not, Mesothelioma Awareness Day is an important time to help spread a message that could impact your life, or the lives of loved ones, until we can end mesothelioma once and for all!

What is mesothelioma?

Mesothelioma is a cancer that can develop in the lungs, abdomen, or heart. It is caused by exposure to asbestos. When the material is disturbed and airborne, inhaled particles stick to the mesothelium tissue in one of the three locations, and remains there–over time having the ability to lead to very severe health complications, including mesothelioma. Mesothelioma has a very long latency period of about 10­-50 years. This means that a person can have mesothelioma, and have no symptoms for decades. Once symptoms begin, they are often brushed off as common ailments. Symptoms include, but are not limited to, difficulty breathing, shortness of breath, coughing, fever, nausea, vomiting, weight loss and arrhythmia. The long latency period paired with common symptoms make mesothelioma extremely difficult to diagnosis. Often times the cancer is not caught until it is in its later stages. It depends on a variety of different facts: the type of asbestos a person was exposed to, the duration of exposure and also the quantity of asbestos one has been exposed to. Unfortunately, mesothelioma generally has an extremely poor prognosis. It depends on a few different things. First, it would matter where the cancer is located. Typically mesothelioma in the abdomen (peritoneal) has the best prognosis, followed by the lungs (pleural), leaving the heart (pericardial) with the poorest prognosis. Then you would take a look at the cell type, stage of cancer, whether or not it’s spread to other locations, and the overall health of the person diagnosed. Early detection is the best way to improve one’s prognosis. At this point, the median life expectancy range of someone diagnosed with mesothelioma is 12-­24 months. Sadly, it is rare to have long­term survival. Less than 10% of patients live beyond 5 years after diagnosis.

Heather’s Story

One person that has defied the odds and is thriving beyond 5 years is Heather Von St. James. Heather is a 10+ year survivor of mesothelioma. Her diagnosis came when she was only 36 years old, because she was exposed at such a young age. Heather’s father worked construction and would come home with his jacket, unknownst to them, covered in dust and asbestos. Heather would wear his jacket to do chores and play outside, and unfortunately was breathing in toxic fibers. When she was diagnosed with malignant pleural mesothelioma, she was a new mom to three month old, Lily. Navigating life as a new mother, and now a cancer patient, was extremely difficult. Her and her husband Cameron came up with a plan soon after they heard the words come out of the doctor’s mouth. While they were both terrified, they knew they had to come up with a plan. Lily needed her mother. First step was surgery. She would go to Brigham and Women’s Hospital, to have her lung removed. Heather recalls moments of fear, as she embarked on one of the scariest parts of her life. “The day I sent Lily off on a plane with my mom while we flew to Boston — I didn’t know if I would ever see her again.” There were so many what­if moments. Heather summed this up as a general fear of the unknown. After the lung removal surgery, Heather took time to recover in Boston, with Cameron by her side. After, she flew to South Dakota, where she would live with her parents and Lily. Cameron would fly back to Minnesota to work. It was very difficult being so far from each other but they made it work. “In that three months, while I was recovering, Cameron was only able to see Lily for three days,” Heather explained. “But, it’s what we had to do in order to get by. It’s just what you do.” In South Dakota, Heather went through chemotherapy, followed by 30 days straight of radiation therapy. She felt as though her body was being cooked from the inside out. It was extremely grueling, and there were times that she felt like giving up. Heather used her faith and hope to keep her going. She thought back to what her surgeon, Dr. Sugarbaker told her after she was diagnosed. “When hope is in the equation, the odds don’t matter.” Click here to learn more about Heather’s story!


Make a Difference!

Heather has made it her life’s mission to spread awareness for this awful cancer. Mesothelioma is totally preventable, with widespread awareness! Educate yourself on common places to find asbestos. Avoid it at all costs. If you suspect it in your home, have it looked at by a professional. If he needs removal, use a professional abatement team. Spread the message to your friends and family! If you feel so obliged, sign a petition to have asbestos banned. The United States is one of the only industrialized nations that has not banned this carcinogen, so every signature counts. One day hopefully we will live in a world where no family has to go through what Heather’s family, and thousands of others have went through!

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