From a 15-Month Prognosis to 17 Years of Survivorship: Heather Von St. James' Mesothelioma Story

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A 17-year survivor shares her experience of getting diagnosed with mesothelioma at 36, when people with this cancer are typically diagnosed at a much older age and given months to live.

Heather Von. St James isn’t the typical mesothelioma cancer survivor.

In 2005, Von St. James was 36 years old and balancing caring for her newborn baby with her work as a hairstylist. She felt constantly fatigued and out of breath, but brushed it off as typical post-pregnancy symptoms.

However, after her loved ones expressed concern about her abnormal weight loss, she agreed to see the doctor, who ordered a biopsy. She was then diagnosed with malignant pleural mesothelioma, a rare cancer that occurs in the lining of the lungs.

Of note, according to The American Cancer Society, the average age upon mesothelioma diagnosis is 72 years old.

After the doctor explained to her that the primary cause of mesothelioma is asbestos exposure, Von St. James flashed back to her childhood. Her father was a construction worker who worked with asbestos-containing drywalls and would come home wearing a dust-covered work jacket. Von St. James often wore that jacket when she ran errands, and unknowingly breathed in toxic fumes for years.

After being told she only had 15 months to live without treatment, Von St. James traveled to Boston from Minneapolis to receive an extrapleural pneumonectomy (a procedure where the lung is removed) at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. After the procedure, she underwent four sessions of chemotherapy and 30 sessions of radiation.

Now, she has been cancer free for 17 years.

In today’s episode of the “Cancer Horizons” podcast, Von St. James explains what it’s like to navigate an “older person’s disease” as a younger woman, her journey from patient to advocate and blogger, her experiences seeking legal action against the companies that contributed to asbestos exposure in her father’s workplace, her advice to other patients with mesothelioma and more.

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