Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Mesothelioma and incredible stories of cancer survival

A dear friend was diagnosed with breast cancer a few years ago. She is a very private person and didn't tell our moms' group right away. When she did tell me some months after she knew, I was in shock. I called our fellow moms and friends and even my own family, quickly begging for their prayers. I should have asked my friend first if it was okay to share her diagnosis, but in my dismay and anxiety for her health, all I could think about was building up a community of support in her need.

My friend had recently adopted a daughter. To hear the words "You have cancer" when you have little ones so dependent on you must add to the fear, but it must also give you a fierce fighting spirit.

My friend is back to healthy now. I am certain that if I asked her what helped pull her through that time of treatment and exhaustion and uncertainty, one of the things she would say would be, "my faith". Yes, her family came to her and took care of her household, and her friends surrounded her and offered support, but faith walks arm and arm with hope and does for the spirit what no words, meals or treatments could do. I know this from personal experience. Faith is a great mystery and an astounding buoy in life's turbulent currents.

One of the best things our moms' group did for my friend was to join her for a St. Peregrine Mass of Anointing - standing, seating, kneeling and praying beside her in solidarity, in love, and in gratitude for all the gifts we saw in her that inspired us to walk closer with God.

Recently, a fellow writer named Heather Von St. James contacted me to share her story of battling and conquering a lesser known cancer called Mesothelioma, Malignant Pleural Mesothelioma, a cancer she likely contracted because of her dad's construction work.

The doctor's original prognosis was that she had 15 months to live, 15 months left when her baby girl was only three months old.

As a mom just reading Heather's account of that moment made my heart constrict. We would do anything for our babies. We live for our babies. Heather then writes:

"He then said chemo and radiation could give me five years and I thought of Lily going into kindergarten without a mom."

That is a heart-wrenching thing to read as a fellow mother. My youngest, my baby boy, just entered kindergarten, and those words forced me to imagine vividly Heather's devastation at that idea.

When Heather writes of standing by her baby daughter's crib in the middle of the night many times to watch her daughter sleep, crying out to God in the silence for the great and beautiful opportunity to watch her daughter grow, to raise her and be there for her, I felt a connection with Heather as I pondered what must be the peculiar weight and immense strain of such a diagnosis. Cancer is something we all fear to some degree if we have read much of it or know anyone who has struggled against its debilitating power. But we can understand, too, where Heather's strength comes from:

"It was during those long sleepless nights that something replaced the fear: Determination. I wasn't going to let the cancer win."

The cancer didn't win. Leaving her precious daughter with her parents, Heather went to Boston for an experimental procedure. In the hospital she faced severe challenges with her kidneys not functioning properly, and after she and her husband implored the prayers of many others, she believes she experienced a miraculous healing that kept her from going on dialysis. 

But the battle was still raging. There was time spent away from her little girl and then her husband Cameron as she had surgeries and recovered. There were hours of chemo treatments, "inevitable chemo comas", a blood transfusion, and then the draining radiation treatments that she didn't think she had the strength to finish. When she was finally through with all the treatments, she experienced a profound loneliness plagued by uncertainty. In the face of all of these enormous hurdles Heather's husband, extended family and friends were there to support her and help take care of Lily, her daughter. 

Cameron, Lily and Heather

It has now been 10 years since Heather's diagnosis. After confronting so many challenges and changes and feeling overwhelmed by the process of healing, she found a new purpose in her journey of overcoming cancer: awareness. She began writing and sharing her story. That is the gift God gives to us and to others, to bring good out of our tragedy by talking about it, sharing our struggles and our hope, and by reaching out to and lifting up others who feel desperate, unsure or alone. We then build on hope and raise up a community. That is what Heather is doing with all that she learned in battling Mesothelioma:

"People needed to know about this disease and I started on my blogging journey. I met more and more patients and their families and saw the devastation caused by this disease. I wanted more than ever to give people hope and to inspire them. As my health returned, so did the fire."

You can follow her blog series 10 years in 10 months, beautiful in all its prose, its heart and its photography. You can find more resources on this disease at Mesothelioma.com.

Although Heather still battles fear about her own health and the health of those she loves most in the world, she also says that "fear is an acronym for False Evidence Appearing Real" as it "builds up to eclipse every rational thought". As a person who struggles routinely with my own fears, I know what she means.

But Heather's story is at its very core one of hope, with gratitude for the support of her husband and all her family and wonderfully rich with the presence of that great companion of hope: faith.

May God continue to bless and guide Heather on her journey, and I ask that you please check out her blog series and, especially if you know someone who is struggling with Mesothelioma, some other cancer or any serious illness, that you generously share it with those you know and love.

Beautiful survivor Heather and her husband, Cameron

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