I am belatedly celebrating this special day but anyone who knows me, knows that I love any excuse to celebrate – late or not – and surviving cancer is definitely worth celebrating. When Heather shared her story with me, I definitely wanted to be a part.
On November 21, 2006, Heather Von St. James was diagnosed with the rare cancer: malignant pleural mesothelioma just under four months after giving birth to her daughter, Lily. This cancer is primarily found in a person’s lungs or abdomen and is caused by exposure to asbestos. It is a scary and dangerous cancer because it has a very long latency period, which means that you could be exposed and not present any symptoms for 10-50 years. As a brand new mother, this diagnosis didn’t just change her life but it also caused fears one couldn’t even imagine. With only 15 months to live, Heather was terrified she wouldn’t be able to work, the medical debt would force her to lose her house and worst of all she’d never see her baby girl grow up. T
With such a grim prognosis, some people would lose hope. But at only 36 years old, Heather used her fears to fuel her survivorship! On February 2, 2006, she took a chance on an experimental surgery to have her left lung removed where the tumor was located. Not only did she lose her lung, but also a rib, half of her diaphragm, and the lining of her heart was also taken. Although her life has been forever changed, she is now thriving, 11 years later. The tremendous risk of this surgery paid off.
Heather and her family and friends from all over celebrate the anniversary of her surgery each year on “Lungleavin’ Day.” This holiday got its name from Heather’s sister. This day has become a form of therapy, a symbolic way to overcome emotions and provide reassurance for everyone that is involved. On this special night each year, people gather at Heather’s home, write their fears on white porcelain plates and smash them into a bonfire. Not only is the physical release cathartic, but the symbolic nature smashing one’s fears relieves stress and convinces yourself that there is no fear too big to overcome. Other survivors and current cancer patients in attendance find solace in sharing stories and remind each other of the strength that they each contain, to fight their diagnoses.
You can learn more about mesothelioma and Heather’s Journey here. I wish her continued health and many more years with her darling Lily. She truly is an inspiration!