Lessons Learned: A Couple’s Battle With Cancer

Von St. James Family

by Cameron Von St. James

When my wife, Heather was diagnosed with cancer in November of 2005, I learned that almost nothing in the world is as frightening as a cancer diagnosis. Her particular kind was called malignant pleural mesothelioma, and we had to begin a fight with this terrible disease just three months after welcoming our first and only child, Lily into the world.

We both sat in the doctor’s office, stunned as we listened. Heather was understandably paralyzed with the fear of the word “cancer” and knowing what was ahead for her. Our doctor gave us three treatment option locations and Heather was too scared and shocked to reply to any of them.  Her eyes pleaded for help. This was the first time I had to take control of the situation and be strong for her, even when inside I was falling apart too.

Our doctor told us that we could go to a regional hospital, but the treatments there weren’t advanced enough for Heather’s kind of cancer. Our section option was a local university hospital, which seemed to me to fall short of our goals too. The third option was Dr. David Sugarbaker in Boston, a renowned and experienced specialist in the treatment of mesothelioma. It would require us to travel to get treatment there, but that didn’t deter me one bit. It was our best shot to beat this thing. I looked at the doctor and said, “Get us to Boston!”

It was the most chaotic, emotionally heart-wrenching time of our lives. Heather had to quit her job and work full-time to beat cancer. This meant that I was left working as much as I could, caring for our newborn daughter, housecleaning, and handling most of the finances during this time. I was also left scheduling travel arrangements and appointments for our trips to Boston. There were times when I thought I was literally going to collapse from the strain of doing all these things, but I had to be strong for Heather. Her energy needed to be focused on beating cancer and fighting with all her heart and body, and I knew she couldn’t be burdened with these other things.

My fears often got the better of me. I’d cry. I’d be angry. I pictured us going completely broke from medical bills and losing Heather anyway. I feared losing her and being left alone to raise our daughter. Lily’s well being weighed heavily on me. She was only a baby. How could she lose her mother so young? We got offers of help with medical bills sometimes from friends and family. I finally caved in and accepted it. There was no other choice. We had to afford these treatments or I was going to lose Heather. I had to do everything in my power to save her.  My strongest advice to anyone in this situation is to accept every offer of help.  Once I learned that there was no room for pride in a battle with cancer, a weight was lifted off my shoulders and life became much more bearable.
My wife Heather is now cancer free. She won her battle. I feel proud to be a part of her success, and I’m proud that I never let my fears or emotional pain stop me from being the stubborn person that I am and fighting right alongside her all the way. Lily is now a beautiful, growing young girl and our family is slowly trying to return to normal. More than anything, I learned that you have to keep going no matter what. We all have the power to do this.

Two years after Heather’s mesothelioma diagnosis, I went back to school full-time. I studied Information Technology and I graduated with honors, and was even given the privilege of speaking at my graduation.  During my graduation speech I let everyone know where I learned the most important lessons of my life – by fighting alongside my wife through cancer.  I told my fellow graduates that within each of us is the strength to accomplish unbelievable things, and that I had witnessed this firsthand by watching my wife.  She was there in the audience with Lily to cheer me on, and that was the greatest reward of all.

Editor’s Note:  For more information and blogs from Cameron Von St. James, here is a link to his blog.

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