Mesothelioma – A Survivor’s Story: Heather Von St. James

Determined to beat the oddsRaising awareness on this rare cancer and the dangers of its main cause - asbestos A mesothelioma television commercial is often the first introduction most people have to this rare cancer, which is linked to asbestos exposure. Asbestos refers to a set of six naturally occurring fibrous minerals, which are durable and resistant to fire, as well as most chemical reactions and breakdowns. It was the material of choice in a variety of products such as roofing shingles, floor tiles, and ceiling materials, just to name a few, prior to 1980. As a result, asbestos fibers cannot be broken down by the body’s natural processes and cells. Instead, the fibers remain trapped inside the lungs and asbestos can cause the cells to malfunction and multiply out of control, leading to a cancerous mesothelioma tumor.

Exposure is known to have occurred in the navy, shipyards, mills, heating, construction and the automotive industries. For over 30 years, exposures to asbestos and certain uses of asbestos have been strictly regulated in the U.S., but asbestos has yet to be banned as it is in 50 other countries, according to the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO). Each year there are 2,000 to 3,000 new cases of mesothelioma.

In 2005, Heather Von St. James, a wife and mother of a three-month-old baby girl, was diagnosed with malignant pleural mesothelioma. She was given only 15 months to live. That was 10 years ago. How did she get exposed to asbestos? She tells the story of her dad and how he worked in drywall construction. When she was a little girl, anything she did outside, she would wear her dad’s coat, white and crusty from drywall dust, not knowing it was full of asbestos. It ultimately was through second-hand exposure from her father’s work jacket. Mesothelioma symptoms typically appear several decades after exposure, hence in Heather’s case, as she was diagnosed at the age of 36. Heather lost 5-7 lbs. a week.

“It felt like a truck parked on my chest and I couldn’t breathe,” said Von St. James. There are a whole host of other symptoms of pleural mesothelioma besides weight loss, chest pains, and difficulty breathing, including: 1) Abdominal swelling or tenderness 2) Anemia 3) Loss of appetite 4) Chills 5) Cough 6) Coughing up blood 7) Fatigue 8) Fever 9) Fluid buildup 10) Lumps under abdominal skin 11) Lumps under skin of the chest 12) Night sweats 13) Pain 14) Vomiting 15) Wheezing

In 2006, Heather had an extra pleural pneumonectomy, which is a surgical treatment for malignant mesothelioma. It involves the removal of a lung, a portion of the diaphragm, the linings of the lung and heart (parietal pleura and pericardium). She shares her journey of fighting this terrible disease in a 10 Years in 10 Months series. Mesothelioma Awareness Day was established in 2004 and today, Heather is focused on mesothelioma awareness, patient advocacy, and fundraising for better treatments and a cure. To date, over $18,000 has been raised. This month, this year marks her 10th year of survivorship and 10th Lung Leavin’ Day, an unofficial day to celebrate Heather’s life-saving surgery. Learn more about mesothelioma and help Heather and her family raise awareness.