Monday, May 7, 2012

My Village - By Guest Blogger Heather Von St. James

Today, I am welcoming guest blogger Heather Von St. James.  She is a cancer survivor who is eager to share her story and be an encouragement to others.  You can learn more about her inspiring story on her blog.  I hope you all enjoy her guest post about the importance of community, and the role it played during her illness and recovery.  Welcome, Heather - and thanks for sharing a part of your amazing experience with us!

My Village

If you’ve ever had children, you’ve probably heard the wise saying, “It takes village to raise a child.” The birth of my daughter taught me its meaning. Lily was born on August 4th, 2005. The pregnancy went smoothly. At first, our excited families and friends surrounded my husband and me. Looking back, there was no way to prepare for the heartbreak ahead.

After returning to work, I started experiencing odd symptoms. Only a month after resuming full time hours, I felt constantly tired. I dismissed it at first, assuming it was related to being a new mother, but the lack of energy persisted. I even felt short of breath. I finally consulted my doctor. On November 21, 2005, after many medical tests, I got the answer. Lily had only been with us for 3 ½ months when I had to face a diagnosis of malignant pleural mesothelioma. This cancer that attacks the lining of the lungs is almost always caused by asbestos exposure. Unknown to me, I had been exposed to it around 30 years ago when I was a child.

My first concerns were for my little girl, my husband, and of how they would manage without me. My prognosis was grave. I was given about 15 months to live without treatment. I decided to do everything in my power to survive, no matter what. With such a dire prediction, I had nothing to lose. I chose to take on the most extreme treatment for mesothelioma. On February 2nd, my husband and I flew to Boston, and I underwent extrapleural pneumenectomy. The surgery removed my left lung. I recovered for 18 days in the hospital. Following this, I spent two months in recovery before starting chemotherapy and eventually radiation—all as a first time mom.

This experience gave me new understanding of the old adage about villages. Without the love, prayers and daily support from those around us, I don’t see how we could have managed. Help came from people in many different parts of our lives. Some of it was unexpected. People we never knew cared gave full support. People we assumed we could rely on sometimes disappeared. Cancer has a way of revealing who really cares about you and who doesn’t.

While we were in Boston, my parents raised Lily. Fortunately, they had their own village of people who helped. Girls who I once babysat offered to watch Lily while my parents worked at their full time jobs. People from the church engulfed them with generosity and genuine love. In the meantime, my husband and I met new friends in Boston. We shared our struggles with incredible people who were going through the same ordeal. It helped get us through each day.

In my hometown of South Dakota, Lily was learning to roll and scoot across the floor. She started to eat solid food. I experienced these joys through the grainy pictures my mother emailed. My husband printed them for me, and I shared them tearfully with the nurses who fawned over Lily just as I did. She was the reason I was there, fighting for my life. Throughout my battle, my daughter was in the very best hands. My parents formed a bond with Lily that time and distance can never diminish.

Now, we have a family policy of embracing life and treating it as a fragile, precious thing. Life isn’t always easy, but we give it 100 percent no matter what it throws our way. My favorite quote is “Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death.” I believe this. Cancer brings both bad and good things. As horrible as the experience was, I am grateful for the good that came from it.

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