Cancer Taught Me I Can Fight Through Anything

You always think you’re going to be a fighter. If something bad happens, you tell yourself that you'll be resilient. You'll be strong. You'll fight. I've learned that the will of a fighter isn’t a guarantee. It’s not like a reflex reaction, and it isn’t something that comes to you when lightning strikes, but rather something that you have to search for and find on your own.
 
My search began when I was 36. It was a big year for me. I had my first and only child –– a beautiful baby girl named Lily ­­–– and it marked the start of a brand new life for my husband Cameron and me. She was this overwhelmingly bright light in our lives, and I knew my world would never be the same. Little did I know how soon my life was going to change, again.

I got the news on November 21, 2005. I hadn’t been feeling well. I had trouble breathing, it felt like a truck parked on my chest, and I was losing around 5-7 lbs a week. I finally went to the doctor to get some tests done. The test results came back, and I received the news: it was cancer. But it wasn’t just any kind of cancer. It was the villain of all cancers, the kind that takes no prisoners and doesn’t know the meaning of mercy. I was diagnosed with malignant pleural mesothelioma: a type of cancer that kills most people within two years. It was caused by asbestos exposure, and it had been unknowingly inside of me for most of my life. I had been accidentally exposed as a child, and now, three decades later and only three and a half months into being a mom, it had decided to attack me.

Fifteen months. That was what the doctor told me. If I were to do nothing and just accept defeat, that was all I would have left. All I could think about was my husband and new baby girl and how it just wasn’t enough. I wanted more than just fifteen months; I wanted a lifetime. Leaving them just wasn’t an option to me, so both my husband and I decided to do whatever it took to keep me alive.

We flew to Boston so we could speak with one of the best doctors in the world for this particular cancer, and I was ready to take on anything. With my kind of prognosis, it called for a very drastic treatment plan, one that my body wasn’t expected to handle very well. Only certain candidates can be considered for this surgery. We knew it was risky, but we also knew it was the only way I would have a chance to watch my daughter grow up. 

On February 2, 2006, I underwent surgery to remove my left lung. There were many risks going into the operation, but all I focused on was the thought of my baby girl and how much she needed me. After the surgery, I spent 18 days in inpatient care and another two months in recovery before I could even start chemotherapy and radiation. 

All the while, my parents had to take over the role of full-time caregivers for Lily. In the beginning, I couldn’t be there for her in the truest sense of the word, but I was there for her in a different way. I would cheer her on through the pictures my mother would send to us, celebrating each moment right along with her. They weren’t the best quality photos because Cameron had to print them off the hospital’s community printer, but they were everything I needed to get me through. I missed some of her biggest moments, like eating solid foods and rolling over, but it was a sacrifice I had to make in order to still be here for her today.
 
Thanks to my battle with cancer, I've realized that my mind allowed me to conquer what my body wasn’t supposed to. I beat the odds and have been cancer free for a little over seven years. 

People ask me how I did it –– how I found my will to fight. The truth is, I didn’t find my will in myself but found it in the ones around me. They gave me something to fight for and a reason to run towards life, not away. It's the people around you who lift you up, guide you through, and bring you back to the land of the living. It's in them that you'll find the will of a fighter.


Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com

About the Author

Heather Von St. James is a wife, mother, and mesothelioma survivor. The year 2005 changed her life when she was diagnosed with a deadly cancer just months after her first and only child was born. 

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