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December 2012 / Bronx/​Riverdale Family / Brooklyn Family / Long Island Family / Manhattan Family / Queens Family / Staten Island Family / Columnists / Healthy Living

One mom’s story of mesothelioma cancer

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When you hear the word mesothelioma, what do you think? Most of us probably conjure up those bad commercials of lawyers asking men if they were exposed to asbestos at work. However, mesothelioma remains a very real and deadly form of cancer that can affect any of us, not just men working with asbestos. Just ask Heather Von St. James, a young mother who learned she had the disease only three months after her first daughter was born.

“I never anticipated that at the age of 36 I’d hear the shocking words, ‘You have cancer.’ I had just given birth, yet three-and-a half months later, I would learn that I was sick with pleural mesothelioma, a type of cancer that is a result of asbestos exposure.”

Not knowing much about the disease when diagnosed, she later learned that she had not acquired malignant pleural mesothelioma through first-hand exposure, but second-hand. Her father was a construction worker who handled materials that contained asbestos, so through daily contact in the form of riding in her dad’s truck or hugging him when he came home, or even simply just being in the same room with his work clothes, Heather was exposed to the deadly substance almost daily.

Heather says that when she was diagnosed, the Mayo Clinic (where she was treated) “had limited knowledge of anyone else my age dealing with this type of cancer. The idea that it only affected men who worked construction-type jobs was the focus of this deadly disease. However, secretaries, teachers, and students who were exposed to the carcinogenic building materials in which the schools were built were also affected. Wives who frequently washed their husbands’ work clothing were affected additional­ly.”

Even more disturbing is the fact that the number of pleural mesothelioma cases in the younger population is rising.

“This generation includes children who attended schools built of the materials containing asbestos. Deteriorating insulation and tiles within these buildings especially posed a great risk,” explains Heather. “Beyond school, homes proved to be a contaminated environment as wives and children cheerfully welcomed dads and fathers home from a hard day’s work. Mothers who taught or secretaries who aided in those contaminated schools likewise were greeted with hugs from family members whom they unknowingly placed at risk.”

Anyone who has been exposed to asbestos in any way would benefit from a full exam, particularly if you have symptoms. For those that have a history of asbestos exposure, early warning signs are dry cough, shortness of breath, shoulder pain, fever, night sweats, and sudden unexplained weight loss. Once you contact your doctor, as with any other disease, the key is to be proactive. Explain to him that you have had asbestos exposure, and you would like to be checked for mesothelioma. Keep in mind, the disease can take anywhere from 20 to 50 years after exposure to appear.

At the time of her diagnosis, Heather was given 15 months to live unless she took drastic measures, which she did, having one lung, one rib, and half of her diaphragm removed. Amazingly, it has been nearly seven years since Heather’s diagnosis, and at her last check-up this past October, it showed there was no evidence of the disease in her body anymore.

“I guess you could call it remission, but I don’t. I say, ‘cancer free.’”

Heather now works as a patient advocate and strives to bring awareness of the disease to others. She is very active in the mesothelioma community. Her positive attitude has only strengthened her outlook.

“My prognosis? Fantastic. We keep on top of appointments; every six months I go back for check ups. It’s been seven years, and I’m feeling great. I’m very active in the mesothelioma community, as a patient advocate, and am getting ready to celebrate seven years at our annual Lungleavin’ Day party, Feb. 2, 2013! I’m having a fund-raiser for mesothelioma research. I’m giving back to the community that has been so wonderful to me.”

Danielle Sullivan, a mom of three, has worked as a writer and editor in the parenting world for more than 10 years. Sullivan also writes about pets and parenting for Disney’s Babble.com. Find her on Facebook and Twitter @DanniSullWriter, or on her blog, Just Write Mom.

Posted 12:00 am, December 24, 2012
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Reader feedback

Helen Grady from UK says:
I loved your story. You are so lucky - I am a lawyer specialising in mesothelioma and also someone who has similar past exposure whilst hugging my Dad who came home from the factory during the 70's whilst working alongside his mate; Dave the Lag. However, in the UK the surgery is not an option and every now and again I hear a story like yours where surgery has been possible and with a good outcome.
Jan. 5, 2013, 6:43 am

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