3Cs: Coffee, Children, and Cancer

A new grad turned pediatric oncology nurses' jump into the fray…

Lessons from Cancer: How My Family Made It

Meet Cameron Von St. James, husband to Heather Von St. James, who despite a “life expectancy” of three months to a year is now a six-and-a-half year mesothelioma survivor. This is testament to how a diagnosis can never really stamp an expiration date on someone’s life. Though many are aware of patients’ struggles, few realize those of the caregivers. This is Cameron’s story…

My wife and I have talked before about a life-changing period of time when she was diagnosed with mesothelioma. It was the most difficult time of my life, but I haven’t really ever spoken about what I went through as her caregiver. When Heather asked me about my experiences, I can only think of the lessons I learned. I hope our story can help others who are going through a similar experience.

Three months before my wife’s diagnosis, we were celebrating the birth of our daughter Lily. My wife and I spent most of our days imagining what life would be like for our new little family. I never thought that such great happiness could be followed by such uncertainty and fear. I remember the day that I sat with my wife in the doctor’s office and heard the word mesothelioma fall from his lips. I remember my wife’s face as she heard the diagnosis. With tears in my eyes, I fell silent, wondering how we were going to get through this.

We learned that the prognosis for mesothelioma patients is almost never good. For the first time of what would become many, we had to make medical choices that would affect the future of our family in the face of emotional upheaval. I didn’t know how I was able to make any decisions in a state of breaking down, but difficult decisions had to be made about her treatment and plan for recovery.

After the diagnosis, I went through a personal upheaval. We had just built a beautiful life together, and now it was being taken away. I didn’t know how to control my anger at times, and I lashed out with profanity and rage in an effort to vent these uncontrollable feelings.  It didn’t take long for me to realize that this wouldn’t help anything, and the last thing my wife needed was to see how scared I truly was. I learned over time to control my emotions. I had to be a rock for Lily and Heather. They depended on me, and I couldn’t show fear in front of them. From that moment on I did my very best to be nothing but a source of hope and optimism for my family.

Every day came with a list of tasks that seemed to go on forever. Not only was I caring for my wife, but I had to take care of everything else too: work, home, Lily and our pets, travel arrangements and doctors appointments, the list seemed endless. It quickly taught me how to prioritize the important tasks and accept help when others offered. We had so many people in our lives who offered to help, and without them, it would have been impossible. I will forever to grateful to each and every person who gave us their love and support during this difficult time.

I had an unbearable period for about two months after my wife had surgery in Boston. Lily had gone to stay with Heather’s parents in South Dakota while Heather underwent mesothelioma surgery, and after the operation Heather flew there to join her.  This left me at home, alone to work and take care of our house.  It was a tough decision to be away from them, but we both knew that I could not provide my family with the care that they needed while still working full-time to support us.  Unfortunately, I only saw my daughter and wife once during this time.

Despite that being the most difficult period of my life, I never regret the decisions that we made. I learned more about myself during this time than I ever have. I learned to be strong despite what life gives you. I learned to accept help from others, and to take comfort in the fact that we could make decisions, no matter how hard they were.  Finally I learned that standing by a loved one through cancer is one of the most difficult things anyone can do, but it can also be one of the most rewarding challenges you’ll ever go through.  I hope that our story can be a source of hope and comfort to those currently battling cancer, and the caregivers who support them.

To read more from Cameron Von St. James, head on over to the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance Blog. Hear from Heather Von St. James’ herself in her inspiring video, “I Was Given Just 15 Months to Live“–go check it out. Right now. 

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