Monday, October 08, 2012

Guest Post, Heather Von St. James

Today marks the first guest post on McEwen and McEwen. I have internet-met a brave lady named Heather who overcame Mesothelioma, cancer caused by asbestos exposure. Her story is frightening and inspiring. Thanks Heather!
 “You have cancer...”

I heard these fateful words during the happiest time of my life: I was a proud new mom of an almost four-month-old baby. How can I have cancer? I thought. Specifically, I had malignant pleural mesothelioma cancer caused primarily by asbestos exposure.

The first question people ask me after I tell them about my cancer is “Asbestos? Isn’t that banned?” (No.) And the next question is always “How were you exposed?” (Secondary exposure.) It didn’t take me long to trace the origins of my exposure. You see, my father worked in construction and did mainly drywall taping, mudding and sanding. As a result, his work clothes accumulated dust throughout the day. This dust contained asbestos, and he brought it home not only on his clothes, but also on his jacket, in his car…everywhere. What we believed was innocent white dust was filled with millions of microscopic asbestos fibers.

At the time I was diagnosed at age 36, the Mayo clinic had heard of only one other case in someone so young. The mesothelioma patient is typically an older male who worked in the trades, such as plumbing, heating, electrical, mechanic, or who was in the military and spent time on ships. Women who worked as secretaries in schools laden with asbestos were also prime candidates for cancer. But then the wives of tradesmen began getting sick. Some of these women had done their husbands’ laundry for years, and they’d always shaken out the dusty, asbestos-caked clothing before putting it in the washer. Secondary exposure was proving deadly.

I was the start of an alarming trend in which the next generation of mesothelioma sufferers began to show up. An increasing number of young people are being diagnosed with mesothelioma. Those now ill were the children who had gone to school in buildings where the asbestos tiles were crumbling and who had played in
the asbestos-contaminated vermiculite insulation in their attics (and in millions of other homes across America). These children were the Daddy’s girls who had routinely jumped into their fathers’ arms at the end of a long day to welcome him home with a hug and had then gone to feed their rabbits wearing Daddy’s dusty jacket because they didn’t want their jackets to get dirty. There were the children who hung out with their dads, who had arrived home after a day of work installing insulation around pipes.

As I become more involved in the mesothelioma community, I meet more young men and women, in their late 20s and early 30s, who are just starting their lives with marriages, babies, and new jobs. It all comes to a screeching halt when they are diagnosed and must focus on beating mesothelioma. But there is good news:
advances in the treatment of this disease are helping more people—of all ages—to become survivors.

Hearing “You have cancer” is devastating, but there is hope for those of us in the fight against mesothelioma. And we win when we come together as a community to share our experience, to support one another, to cry when things aren’t working and, yes, to celebrate the victories.

So why am I sharing my story? To increase awareness. Nothing will change unless more people become aware of mesothelioma. If my story helps someone newly diagnosed or someone living in fear of mesothelioma, then I am doing the right thing. Here is a great, very short video for anyone who wants to learn more:

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