How to Find Light in the Darkest of Times (one woman’s harrowing story)

“Life doesn’t always go the way we plan it. But life often adapts to the determination we have to make it better than it currently is.” ~M2bH

Note: This is a moving and inspiring guest post contribution to M2bH, by Emily Walsh, about her friend Heather Von St. James (pictured in the photo above). I trust you will find it worth the read.

Cancer. Not a very happy word. In fact, it may make you squirm a little.

Even if you have never had to battle the disease yourself, there’s a good chance you know someone who has. The bottom line is that cancer robs the world of thousands of lives a year.

But this is not one of those stories. In fact, it’s not about cancer at all, really. It’s a story of the indomitable human will. Of ingenuity. Focus. Determination.

Indeed, it is an uplifting story about one survivor who has transformed her journey with cancer into a positive account of hope and courage!

Her Story

At the young age of 36, my friend, Heather Von St. James, was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a rare cancer with a low prognosis and few survivors.

This was heart-stopping news for the young woman. A new mother with a 3 ½ month old at home, a blossoming career, and a warm home with a wonderful husband, she had her whole life ahead of her and feared she was going to lose it all just like that.

Mesothelioma is a cancer caused by asbestos. She was exposed to it as a child while doing yard work in her father’s dusty work coat. The dust, it turned out, was asbestos. With a latency period of 20-50 years, Heather was very young to be diagnosed.

Her prognosis? A mere 15 months to live. Given that prognosis and the limited number of mesothelioma survivors to find hope in, Heather knew she had to find strength deep within to fight to survive for her daughter Lily, her husband Cam and, of course, herself.

She simply was not going to surrender to this violent intruder without a fight.

It was then that Heather decided to take a somewhat experimental treatment route including the removal of her left lung, a rib, part of her diaphragm, and the lining of her heart and lung, and a chemotherapy cocktail wash of her chest and abdomen before being stitched up.

This was followed by weeks of chemotherapy and radiation.

And lots of pain.

Treatment was draining, to say the least, but Heather fought through it always with the end goal of surviving. She was going to watch Lily grow up. There was no acceptable alternative.

The support of her husband and parents was also essential. They were there to not only take care of Lily so Heather could focus on her health, but also as a shoulder to cry on and an ear to listen when the pain, the fear, even terror, were especially strong.

In the end, the pain and exhaustion she was subjected to was worth it because Heather is surviving and thriving, 11 years later, having officially outlived her 10-year best-case-scenario on February 2, the anniversary of her surgery! Humorously named Lung Leavin’ Day by her sister, this anniversary has been celebrated every year for the past 10 years as a way to celebrate cancer survivors!

This day best exemplifies how Heather dealt with the fear and pain of mesothelioma cancer and lit up the darkest time of her life with hope.

Each year friends and family from all over gather at Heather’s home to write their fears on glass plates and smash them into a bonfire. This symbolic act of defiance recognizes that many fears are imagined to be worse than they actually are, and that with enough courage and support, it is possible to overcome even our deepest and darkest fears!

Guests find it very therapeutic and empowering to watch something that has had such a hold on them burn up in the fire. In fact, you can participate by smashing your own fears here!

Lung Leavin’ Day also serves as a day to celebrate cancer survivors and connect them with current patients who may need a friendly face to talk through their shared experiences with.

Never finding a survivor to speak with herself, this is very important to Heather to not only share her story and show that hope and survival are possible, but also to address any questions and fears the patient may be having.

As an advocate, Heather works tirelessly throughout the year to spread awareness about mesothelioma and to get asbestos banned. Lung Leavin’ Day is one avenue through which she accomplishes this. Being a rare cancer with about 3,000 new diagnoses a year, there isn’t much funding for mesothelioma when compared to other cancers.

Over the past 10 years an incredible $30,000 has been raised for research through Lung Leavin’ Day! This year Heather set the goal at $11,000 to celebrate beating her prognosis.

Hopefully, you have gained a sense of how special this story is. Faced with such a difficult and unpromising situation, Heather used her strength and determination to be there for her family to survive and now she is giving back by supporting other patients.

Heather is the survivor other patients can find hope in that she didn’t have when she began the battler of her life 11 years ago..

Key takeaways for your happiness

1. A supportive group is essential to surviving great challenges. So don’t be afraid to lean on those who love you. And be that person to someone you love, even if you don’t know what to say or how to say it at first. Just love them and serve them and be there for them. The rest will work itself out.

2. Be willing to try what has never or seldom been tried before. When met with difficulties that don’t bend to convention, go unconventional and do what needs to be done. This is not only true in health, but in business and happiness as well. Perhaps it’s true that convention usually works just fine. But when it doesn’t, don’t be afraid of driving off road for a while.

3. Persevere. Endure. Persist. White-knuckle through the most painful and demoralizing times. There is always light at the end of dark tunnels. Hold out hope. Continue. Pain will ease. Challenges will be overcome. Heartbreak will eventually be replaced by joy. Don’t give up. Ever.

4. Make meaning out of your pain. Find purpose in your heartache. Discover the reason you went through your challenge. Then use it to bless others. Trials and tribulations shrink in the wake of using your experiences to serve and lift those who are similarly finding it difficult to endure their own.

Happiness is not the absence of great challenge. It is the result of how we choose to respond to life’s difficulties. It is the afterglow of the way we approach them. It is the byproduct of the way we live our lives more than the way life presents itself.

Emily Walsh is the community outreach director for the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance, a resource to help people who have been diagnosed with mesothelioma and their families. Heather and Emily both work to promote mesothelioma awareness, support those affected by this cancer and aim to see asbestos banned. They have become close through their work while highlighting Heather’s journey and sharing her story as a source of inspiration and hope for those facing adversities like cancer. You can read more about Emily’s work on her blog!

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