Mesothelioma is a rare and deadly type of cancer of the lungs that develops after exposure to asbestos, and is sadly a global phenomenon. Awareness of the pernicious affects of asbestos grew in the UK in the 1970’s after workers in the shipping industry were exposed. Other high exposure occupations include construction workers, carpenters, joiners, plumbers, boilermakers and electricians. For this reason, it is commonly known as a ‘man’s disease’. In the UK, however, many women have been exposed, and the annual number of deaths has increased more rapidly than men. Women are exposed through contact with male relatives, or by living near asbestos factories.
Unlike the UK, asbestos is shockingly not banned in the US. American wife and mother Heather Von Saint James, like many women, contracted mesothelioma through second-hand exposure. “People tend to think of it as an old man’s disease. The fact of the matter is, young women are the fastest growing demographic of new mesothelioma patients”, she tells me. “My father had worked in construction and would come home with dust all over him. As a child I would wear his work coat, unknowingly exposing myself to the asbestos he worked with daily”. She was diagnosed eight years ago after giving birth to her daughter Lily, and given just 15 months to live. She defied the odds with a life-saving, complex operation that removed her left lung.
Since then, Heather has made it her life’s mission to spread awareness of mesothelioma. She has contacted people as far as the UK, Brazil, and Australia, and has been contacted from Turkey, Spain, Japan and India. “Asbestos and mesothelioma are truly a global problem”, she tells me. “Asbestos continues to pose health risks to hundreds of thousands of people. The number one method of exposure right now is through home renovation and do-it-yourself projects. People go tearing into their homes, not knowing that asbestos is present, and get exposed to the deadly fibers. There is no known safe level of exposure to asbestos so knowledge is power”.
The problem is compounded by an expensive American healthcare system that Heather says is “broken”. She tells me “Our health issues demand more attention, better treatment, and better availability of care. We don’t have health coverage like you do in the UK, so many women go without regular check ups, and when a health crisis happens, it’s many times too late in the game for treatment to be effective”. Initiatives like Mesothelioma Awareness Day in the USA are so important for raising awareness to both women and men, about the deadly effects of asbestos.
Life after surgery
There are inevitably times when living with a hidden disability is tough. Heather sometimes experiences shortness of breath, and deals with chronic pain that she keeps well controlled. She nevertheless takes very good care of herself through healthy lifestyle. “I know exercise and taking good care of myself, as well as listening to my body, is the best way to deal with things.”
Heather speaks, and writes about her experiences at the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance “I blog, because it is my passion to bring about awareness and help people who find themselves with a diagnosis of mesothelioma, and give them hope… So basically I’m a stay at home mom on a mission!”.
Heather’s positive and go-getting attitude is indeed a source of inspiration and hope for those diagnosed with mesothelioma. As well as inspirational speeches and writing, she holds a cathartic ‘Lung Leavin’ Day’ every year with family, friends, and survivors of mesothelioma. Everybody writes their fears on a plate and then smashes their plate into a bonfire. She writes in her blog:
“To celebrate life takes on new meaning when you’re told yours won’t last long. Yet here we all were, defying the odds and smashing our fears. Our backyard was cold but beautiful, ringed by globe lanterns and strands of blue lights, with the bonfire burning orange in the centre. One by one, we took our plate and threw it into the fire.”
For more information about mesothelioma in the UK see:
For more information about mesothelioma in the USA see:
To read Heather’s mesothelioma blog see: