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The Power of My Village

This is an inspiring and heart-warming article from Heather Von St. James, a courageous mother, wife and survivor of mesothelioma cancer.

“It takes a village to raise a child.” We heard this saying very often when our daughter was born and I have come to believe that it’s true.  When Lily made her debut by way of an emergency C-section on August 4, 2005, our “village” sprang into action.  Our parents, extended family and many friends came to share the joyous event and offer support.  Everything was going so well that the heartbreak, which lay ahead, was unimaginable.

After Lily’s birth I resumed working full time, but within a few weeks I began to feel run-down.  I knew that new mothers generally experience fatigue, but with the persistent lethargy, exhaustion, and shortness of breath, I just had the feeling that something was wrong.  I scheduled an appointment with my doctor who performed a battery of tests.

On November 21, 2005, only 3 ½ months after we had welcomed baby Lily into our lives, I was diagnosed with malignant pleural mesothelioma.  Pleural mesothelioma is a cancer in the lining of the lung caused by asbestos exposure and my exposure had occurred during childhood. My prognosis for mesothelioma was grim:  I would have 15 months to live if I chose not to receive treatment.

I thought about my baby and my husband; I pictured them alone and decided that I needed to fight for my life.  We chose the most radical treatment option we were offered. I would undergo a surgical procedure known as an extrapleural pneumenectomy.

We flew to Boston where I received treatment from one of the top mesothelioma doctors, while Lily went to live with my parents in South Dakota.  On February 2, 2006, my left lung was removed and I spent the next 18 days recovering from the surgery.  Another 2 months passed before I was ready to start chemotherapy and radiation.  This is where our “village” once again came through for us; without their love, prayers, and support, I might not have made it.

At my childhood home in South Dakota, our old church family rallied around my parents to help them take good care of Lily. Girls who I had once babysat now had families of their own, yet they voluntarily babysat Lily so Mom and Dad could work.  Knowing that our baby was surrounded by such love made missing her milestones more bearable.  She was learning to scoot, eat food, and roll around without me; I tried not to cry when I saw the pictures that my parents had emailed to us.   As I tracked Lily’s growth through grainy, black and white images, I comforted myself with the thought that she was in the best possible hands. Meanwhile, in Boston, our village had expanded to include others who were going through the same thing.

My favorite quote says, “Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death.” Now, as a family, we really try to embrace life, having learned how fragile it can be.  No one promised us that life would be easy, but we have done the best we can. Embrace all that life throws at you. Cancer is a funny thing, however, along with the bad, there comes a lot of good. As dire as my diagnosis was, a whole lot of good has come from it.  For that, I am thankful.

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