April 16, 2013

The Ties that Bond Us: My Family's Story of Cancer


A Guest Post by Heather Von St. James

Whenever my daughter talks about saving my life, it's always a little bit funny, especially to those who are hearing it for the first time. She's an amazing storyteller. Her candid statement is almost like her stating something so matter-of-fact, as if she was hungry or thirsty. My story coincides with her own as well. As a baby, she truly did save my life, and as impossible as that sounds, I will be the first to explain just how something like that could happen. 


I was 35 when my husband Cameron and I decided it was time to have a baby. We were extremely nervous about everything. I had so many questions. It was oddly surreal to have a life growing inside of my body. I didn't know what was in store for the future or how we were going to raise her. I wondered what kind of parents we were going to be. Was I going to be the coolest mom? I figured that it didn't matter as long as we were the best parents for our child. That was key. I just had to be a good mom. 



The pregnancy was nine months of awesome. I was never in any pain. I went through it and would go through it again if it were just as smooth. On delivery day, something difficult did happen, however. It was the first sign of trouble yet. Lily was in breech position. That meant I couldn't deliver her like we planned. The doctor went for an emergency c-section. It was scary for ``a while, but at least, my baby girl would have a round head! That humor also got me through a tough time. Holding Lily for the first time was such an amazing experience, nothing could ever compare. I was so happy. We were going to make her life exquisitely beautiful. 


After coming home from the hospital, I knew that I needed to get into the swing of things quickly. I was going to work again when I started to feel fatigue to the point that I barely wanted to get up and walk around. I couldn't handle it. The weight loss was scary. I was losing up to seven pounds a week. Something was wrong, and I needed to see a doctor quickly. That was when we went in for tests. 


After three months that we had spent being the doting new parents, we went to the doctor's office together. Thanksgiving Day was that week. We had been in the midst of preparing for family and a big feast, as well as having something so precious to be thankful for. It was that day that I learned that I had malignant pleural mesothelioma. Not only that, but the doctor told me that I didn't have more than 15 months to live if I didn't get treatment. Despite being told how important treatment was, I completely blocked everything out at that point. I was having a breakdown right there in the office. Without Cameron, I don't know if I would have gotten treatment so quickly, which may have saved my life. It was his decision to go to the specialist in Boston, and that was the doctor who was going to save my life. He had a program that had saved many mesothelioma patients in my same predicament.


The first part of my treatment was extremely risky. The cancer had to be removed from my body, which meant one of my lungs had to be removed as well as parts of my chest & heart lining and diaphragm. I spent months in the hospital and outpatient facility recovering from the life threatening surgery. I wasn't able to see Lily. I missed out on so much, and I knew it. I had to make those sacrifices so that I could be there for another 20 years, but I was so afraid that I was clinging on to a life that wasn't going to happen. In the darkest of times, I thought of Lily and felt myself able to go through the next part of cancer treatment: chemotherapy and radiation. 



It was a battle to get to this point, but I did beat mesothelioma. Through it all, my family was there for me, as well as many other people who heard my story and wanted to help. There were even strangers who came to our aid. I could never thank these people enough for their kind words and donations to my recovery. It was through their kindness that I was able to get the treatment that I needed and quickly get back to being a new mother. Now I have an amazing storyteller to tell me her side of the story and I realize how it's made our family bond stronger.