“It takes a village to raise a child.” That’s how the saying goes. It means, of course, that a child’s upbringing happens with the support of so many people. We each have our own community that we call our “village.” My family could not have survived the cancer diagnosis I received shortly after my daughter’s birth if not for the efforts of an entire village of family, friends, and acquaintances who stepped in when times looked darkest.
My daughter, Lily, born by emergency C-section on August 4, 2005, was a beautiful, perfect baby. I was overjoyed following her birth and motherhood suited me. Yet within weeks of my return to work, I knew something was wrong. All new moms are tired, but I was breathless and had no energy at all. My doctor agreed that this wasn't normal. Following tests, he diagnosed me with a form of cancer that attacks the lining of the lung, malignant pleural mesothelioma. I was unknowingly exposed to asbestos as a child and it became the cause of my cancer.
Lily was just over three months old. On receiving the diagnosis, she was all I could think of—Lily and the idea of my husband raising her alone. I was willing to try anything to save my life, not for my own sake but for my family. The prognosis for mesothelioma is poor. Luckily my husband and I learned of a treatment that was available in Boston. It would mean months in the city away from my baby, but the alternative was worse.
Under the care of doctors in Boston, I endured the removal of my left lung and all of the surrounding tissue through surgery and week of chemotherapy and radiation. During this time, people rallied around my family in ways I could never have imagined. My parents in South Dakota took care of Lily. Lily’s village expanded to include people I’d grown up around, gone to church with, even people I used to babysit. In Boston, the love and support of new friends on the same journey that my husband and I were enduring enlarged our village even more.
Being away from Lily for such a long time was heartbreaking. I missed her first bites of solid food and watching her motor skills improve as she learned to roll around. But my parents did their best to include me with emailed photos that my husband printed off on a hospital printer and shared with our nurses. We all knew that those grainy prints were the reason I was fighting so hard.
Thanks to the efforts of my doctors, my own fighting spirit, and our village, my family and I survived. Lily now shares a bond with my parents that would never have otherwise existed. Having cancer was a terrible thing, but we have all learned to embrace life in a new way and even to find the good from the worst situations.
Heather Von St James is a 43-year-old wife and mother. Upon her diagnosis of mesothelioma, she vowed to be a source of hope for other patients who found themselves with the same diagnosis. Now, over 6 years later, her story has been helping people all over the globe. She continues her advocacy and awareness work by blogging, speaking and sharing her message of hope and healing with others. Check out her story at the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance Blog.