Cancer and New Motherhood


Some motherhood stories are happy, some are sad. Some are inspirational, some heart-wrenching. Heather Von St James’ story about fighting cancer as a brand new mom is all of these things and more.

May we all have stories that allow us to celebrate the strength of the human spirit and the preciousness of life.
Here is Heather’s story — in her own words.

Nothing prepares you for what new motherhood throws at you. Sure, I read all the usual books, What to Expect When You’re Expecting, The Baby Whisperer, On Being Babywise, to name a few. Friends told me their new motherhood stories, but nothing in the world, no book, no article, no talk show can prepare you for being diagnosed with cancer just 3 1/2 months after becoming a new mom. That is what happened to me.

My daughter was born on August 4th, 2005. Everything went smoothly with the pregnancy with the exception of weight gain… I didn’t gain any. My doctor chalked it up to me eating healthier, so we didn’t worry much about it.

Lily came into the world via c-section due to the fact that she was a frank breech. I was not too concerned about it, knowing that it was the best decision for her health and mine.

Being a new mom brought its fair share of obstacles, but thank God for the books, and for my mom, who were there to help. I got used to functioning on less sleep, and even got to the point where those awful blow out diapers didn’t bother me. Things with being a new mom were going well…until October.

I started noticing strange symptoms. I was tired — to my core tired. I had a hard time breathing, and got winded when I walked up stairs or carried Lily in her carrier very far. The weight loss continued and I just thought it was because of breast feeding. Then the low grade fevers started. I finally called my doctor when I knew it was more than just postpartum symptoms.

When I went to see Dr. Doyle, he thought I maybe had a heart virus that affects women after giving birth, so he ordered blood work and x rays to see what might be going on. He wasn’t prepared either for what he found.

Dr Doyle is our family doctor and we have known him for years, so it was with sadness that he told me there was fluid on my lung, and that I needed to go see a specialist. He got me in right away with a colleague of his and that is when the roller coaster started.

The diagnosis came on November 21st, 2005, just 3 1/2 months after giving birth to Lily.

I had Malignant Pleural Mesothelioma — cancer in the lining of my left lung. Mesothelioma is almost always caused by asbestos exposure, showing up 20-30 years after the initial exposure.

Here I was as new mom, facing all that brings with it, and now, I had to figure out what was right for us, our family. My first concern was that Lily would be taken care of. I had to be in Boston for a month for my surgery, and taking her with was not an option.

My parents stepped in and said they would take Lily for the month I was in Boston, and for how ever long my recovery was. As my husband and I boarded a plane for Boston, my mom and my 6 month old baby girl boarded another for Spearfish, South Dakota, and there she would live for the next three months while I had my surgery and recovered from it.

While I regained my strength, my parents cared for the both of us.. I went from being mommy, to being the child again.. but we did what needed to be done.

Cancer affects the whole family, not just the patient. My entire family, and my husbands family surrounded us with support and love and we are all closer because of it.

I’m happy to say that the surgery was a success.. I went on to do chemo and radiation in my home town all the while caring for Lily, albeit with a lot of help. I never did go back to work and decided to be a stay at home mom; after all, she is the most important thing in my life.

I’m happy to say my number one goal for her was that she never know anything was wrong, and at such a young age, I wanted to make sure she was surrounded with love, and caring people and have as little upheaval as possible. She just turned 6 this past August, and entered 1st grade this fall.

She is a happy, bright, and fun kid, but has a wisdom about her that only comes from going through what we have been through as a family. She knows I had cancer, she knows I only have one lung, and often tells people she saved my life, because she did.

Being a mom gives you the courage to do things you thought were impossible. Because of my little girl I continue my fight to bring about awareness and hope for Mesothelioma. She is right, she did save my life and I’m proud to be her mom, and a survivor.

This story is written by Heather Von St. James for Motherhood Cafe.

“MummySG, where every Mum is awesome.”