Although facing some of life’s biggest challenges, a determination to win their battles – against all odds – brought these individuals through. Each one of these N’Courage stories of “Defying the Odds” embodies courage and strength that is nothing short of inspirational.

In 2005, after experiencing one of the most joyous moments in life – the birth of her daughter, Lily Rose, – Heather Von St. James soon found herself fighting for her life. Her daughter was only three months when Heather was diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma. This rare and aggressive type of cancer, commonly a disease in the lungs and abdomen, was in Heather’s left lung. Malignant mesothelioma is primarily caused by the exposure to asbestos and is the most serious of asbestos related diseases with 2,000 to 3,000 new cases yearly.

Heather Before Diagnosis

While Heather was pregnant with her daughter, she was extremely fatigued, anemic, and had only gained five pounds. She thought these symptoms were all pregnancy related. It wasn’t until she had difficulty breathing weeks after giving birth that she knew something else was wrong.

I was in total shock. I had never even heard the word mesothelioma before. It wasn’t until the doctor asked me if I’d ever been exposed to asbestos, did I realize what I was up against.

The shocking diagnosis helped Heather recall how she had been exposed to asbestos at a young age.

My dad was a construction worker and he worked with a lot of asbestos. He brought it home on his work clothes and coats. I distinctly remember wearing his dusty, dirty coat to do my outside chores, like feed the rabbits, and raking the yard. I didn’t want to get my own coat dirty, so I wore my dad’s.

Heather was given 15 months to live and told that most mesothelioma patients do not survive more than 5 years. Heather and her husband, Cameron, searched for the best treatment available. Soon they found a groundbreaking treatment known as extrapleural pneumonectomy – a surgery that would require removing Heather’s lung. It was a dangerous procedure but also was her best chance at survival and to be there for her daughter.

Lung Leavin' Day

Lung Leavin’ Day

This past February, Heather celebrated her 10 year anniversary of what she refers to as her “Lung Leavin’ Day.” This event commemorates the day Heather had her surgery to remove her lung.

About 100 of our closest friends come and celebrate. We mark the occasion by writing our fears with a sharpie on real stoneware plates and we smash them into the fire. By the end of the night, there is a pile of shards around our fire pit, remnants of people’s fears that they smashed that night. It’s very cathartic…

The event is an annual tradition for Heather’s family and has become a fundraiser for mesothelioma research. This year alone, the event raised over $12,000 and overall more than $25,000 for mesothelioma research and advocacy.

Heather and Cameron

Heather and Cameron

When I think of spirit and heart, I think of my wife Heather….Her doctor told us that without treatment, she had maybe 15 months to live. With a newborn baby at home, that wasn’t an option for us.

Cameron Von St. James

Advocacy and Defying the Odds

It is more than just survival though- it’s having and making a fulfilling life. I live very much in the moment, and don’t sweat the small stuff. I love life and all it has to offer, good, bad and otherwise. That is really how I defy the odds… I live life on my terms and didn’t let cancer make me a victim.

Today, Heather is a wife, mother, survivor, blogger, and fierce patient advocate. She works on spreading awareness on mesothelioma and the dangers of asbestos. Making her voice heard is important because asbestos is still legal and being used in the USA, even though its dangers are well known and documented. In addition to actively sharing her story, Heather also volunteers with The Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, and The Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation.

Working with The Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance has been what has kept me going after my diagnosis…having a purpose and helping others so they don’t feel so isolated like I did when I was diagnosed is so important to me.

She is the reason I fought so hard to survive

Last week Heather and Cameron celebrated their 17th wedding anniversary, which also coincided with Global Asbestos Awareness Week. Her family is extremely proud of her advocacy and thankful for how close they are.

“We are really close… {Lily Rose} told me many times that she’s happy she can share her feelings with me. We have raised her with not hiding the facts about my cancer, we haven’t tried to shield her from what it is or what it means.”

You can continue to follow Heather’s online advocacy on her website and speak with her if you or a loved one is currently coping with mesothelioma.

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