Learning to be Thankful After Cancer

Cameron, Lily and Heather

Cameron, Lily and Heather

I am thrilled to introduce to you my very first guest blogger; Cameron Von St. James, who is pictured here with his wife Heather and their daughter Lily. Thank you Cameron for sharing your story of hope and inspiration with us.

Our holidays have always centered around family traditions and celebration of gratitude. However, seven years ago at the start of the holiday season, I felt that I had little to be thankful for.

In August of 2005, our daughter, Lily was born. We were looking forward to celebrating her first Christmas as a family of three, and my wife, Heather and I talked endlessly about our hopes and plans for our daughter’s first Christmas. However, in an instant all of our excitement and happiness was torn away. My wife was diagnosed with cancer, just three days before Thanksgiving.

Lily was just three months old when Heather learned that she had malignant pleural mesothelioma, a rare and very deadly form of cancer. We went from planning her first holiday experiences with family, friends and Santa, to medical options for fighting cancer. I was so angry that this was happening to my family, and I was terrified at what might happen. I learned quickly what mesothelioma was and what the chances were of survival. I did my best to be positive, but somehow all I could picture was the worst-case scenario; me as a widower with a daughter who would never really know her mother.  I truly felt in those moments that I had nothing to be thankful for.

Cameron and Lily

Cameron and Lily

Despite our fears in the next few days, we still had a Thanksgiving dinner. Heather’s family had flown in to celebrate Thanksgiving with us. Heather would start treatment in Boston soon, so it was really one of the last times for us to all be together. There was something else that we had to discuss. It was one of worst conversations since learning that Heather had mesothelioma. After dinner, we sat with Heather’s parents and talked about our finances, including all of our financial assets, debts, what we could liquidate and how to pay for child care and Heather’s treatment. Heather and I both worked, but money was already tight and with expensive travel and treatment looming, along with the fact that we would be reduced to one income when Heather started treatment, we were in financial trouble.  I was embarrassed and mortified to have to have this conversation with my family, and it would be years before I could look back on it with anything but shame.

Now, I realize how mistaken I was back then to view this time in the way that I did. I realize now how very lucky I was to be surrounded by people who cared about my family, who were willing to drop everything to be by our sides and make incredible sacrifices to ensure our well-being. The people in our lives really came through for our family and gave whatever they could to help us. While mesothelioma had devastated us, it hadn’t completely shattered what we always had together and it made us pull together even more that Christmas.

Heather, Lily and Cameron

Heather, Lily and Cameron

This holiday, I want to thank every single person who showed their kindness and support for my family. The love of my family and friends truly allowed us to celebrate a special time of year together. We now have a healthy little girl and more time to make many new memories and traditions around Christmas.  Thanks in large part to the love and support of our family and friends, we were able to make it through Heather’s treatment, and she beat her cancer. Mesothelioma has not been a part of our lives for over six years now, and we’ve been able to share many Christmas’ together with Lily.  We hope that our story can be a source of hope and inspiration to all those currently battling cancer this holiday season.

A Botched Boob-Job

 

If you Google botched boob jobs, the pictures you see here will come up; grotesquely undesirable breasts complete with commentary. I had a botched boob job, but mine was far different than those of these women.

During a unilateral mastectomy (one boob) a couple of years ago, I had immediate reconstructive surgery. The breast health surgeon was there as well as the plastic surgeon. One giveth, one taketh away. It has been complicated because I had already had one course of radiation on that breast and radiation degrades the tissues and its ability to maintain a foreign object. It all went well and after multiple surgeries, I had two perfectly natural looking augmented breasts. I was impressed.

Then the cancer came back for a third time. The doctors told me I would have to have the implant taken out and a tissue expander put back in for the better part of a year while I underwent chemo and another course of radiation. I was devastated at this news. The tissue expander is by far one of the most painful aspects of this whole journey. I know I have complained about it before, but I just can’t complain enough about this torturous device. There has got to be a better way to “hold the space” for an implant without putting a hard squeaky toy in a woman’s chest wall. I spoke endlessly with my surgeons about this, even negotiated a way to live with the tissue expander for a shorter amount of time than what they originally wanted. However, I may need to become an advocate for a new type of technology, or hire a team of engineers to come up with something different on my own, because what is available is ridiculously painful.

I got through the nine months or so with the tissue expander and now it was time to remove it and replace it with a nice soft pliable silicone implant. I was never happier to undergo a surgery. But after surgery, things started to go downhill. My body was not healing. The radiation oncologist warned me that all of the radiation that I have had could cause the body to reject an implant all together. The tissue is no longer healthy, which is what they wanted in order to keep the cancer from returning. But without healthy tissue, there is no healing.

4 weeks post-surgery the incision opened up and a flood of fluid pooled around me. I was completely freaked out as I could tell that my body was “rejecting” the implant. The radiation oncologist suggested that I just remove the implant altogether and have only one breast…I looked him square in the eyes and asked him how many body parts he was living without because of cancer. He looked away. I called the plastic surgeon. 

“We need to get you in tomorrow for emergency surgery” said the surgeon. “I want to swap out the implant which has probably become infected, move the incision in order to find healthy skin that will heal and put a drain in so there is no pressure on the incision as this will take a long time to heal.”

“Fine,” I said. “We need to save her; I’m not ready for a uniboob.”

So back to surgery I went, I think this was the 15th on this same little breast, but I wasn’t giving up.

Since I was their last case of the day, I couldn’t eat or drink anything and I had to wait around all day while they squeezed me in for this emergency procedure. It was starting to get dark outside and the staff was starting to leave the surgery center for the day. Finally it was my turn. They wheeled me into the OR and I looked at the clock, it was 4:30 pm. The anesthesiologist came in and mixed up a nice cocktail for me that he put into the IV. He asked me a question, but I don’t remember answering it, man I love that stuff!

A couple of hours later I was in recovery and Joe was back by my side. We drove home and I settled in to begin the long road to healing. It has been 10 days since the surgery, I still have the drain, but the surgeon is seeing good signs of healing. I told the universe that I am coming out of this thing with two breasts and no cancer. I will settle for nothing less and I won’t give up on being healthy and whole.

But the question that still lingers on my lips is why oh why do woman have grotesquely weird augmentations done to themselves?