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.

Thanksgiving: An American Tradition of Gratitude

 On the 4th Thursday of every November Americans gather with their friends and families to give thanks, and to indulge on turkey, mashed potatoes, and stuffing. Here a list of of things that I am thankful for this year, I encourage you to come up with your own list.

Vatican City, Rome

  • After completing chemo therapy in December, Joe and I took a celebratory trip to Italy in January. I was sick, bald, and nowhere close to recovered from the poisons my body endured, but my will was strong and I refused to wait another day to get on with my life. We visited; Rome, Florence, Perugia, Bologna, and Venice. It was magical and I loved every minute of it.
  • I am most thankful for all of the love and support that I have received from my friends and family this year. I sit in awe of the kindness that people have shown to me, everything from messages on-line, phone calls, cards, flowers, meals, visits, prayers, vitamins, rides to treatment, fund-raisers for cancer research and treatment, books, or a shoulder to cry on, my friends and family really stepped up and were there for me. I truly could not have made it through this year without this love and support, and I am humbled by it.

    Dirty Girls of Del Norte

    Trina and Reina after the ACS walk

  • I am grateful for Joe. Joe co-founded Jamba Juice, he carved out a hugely successful career for himself and when he was able to retire at age 40, he took on the monumental task of taking care of me, our (collective) three kids and our household while I battled cancer. He works tirelessly and never ever complains, instead, I hear him singing while he works. He has done an amazing job keeping it all together for us, and he does so in a loving way; I have learned a lot from him.
  • I absolutely love the maturity that my 16-year-old son Curtis demonstrated this year. Watching him blossom into a young man is such a joy  for me. He is my only child, and my illness has been incredibly hard on him. We have grown even closer over this past year and I treasure the intimate bond that I share with him. He inspires me to keep fighting every day.

    Curtis Junior Year

  • I am beyond grateful that I am cancer free today. After three breast cancer diagnosis, chemo, 2 rounds of radiation and 15 surgeries, I will always remain cautiously optimistic that the cancer won’t return, however, it is something I live with every day. What I have learned is that recurrent cancer is a host problem, meaning my body lacks the ability to effectively trap and eliminate carcinogens. I have spent this past year learning how I can support my immune system so that I may have a better chance of the cancer not returning again. Admittedly I became a little obsessed with reading the obituaries and when I saw a woman’s obit talking about how “she bravely fought cancer for x years but finally succumbed” I get very scared. Will this too be my fate? I am grateful it wasn’t my fate in 2012!
  • You know I have to mention my dog Dash, I will always be grateful for her sweet disposition and presence in my life. What a blessing this creature is to me.

    Dash

  • I am grateful that I got to see my dear friend Smith’s daughter Natalie get married. Being able to share this event with them fueled my body, and nourished my soul. Life is short, RSVP yes! to everything you can.

    RSVP – YES to everything!

  • I am grateful that I found the courage to write my story. My one book has turned into three and though not published yet, they soon will be! I have received feedback from people around the world that my story has touched; I am honored to be able to share it. I began writing because I was afraid that I would die of cancer before my son truly knew who his mom, the woman, the person was. He is not ready to read my story yet, but I am grateful that I did this for him and for me.
  • I am grateful for the lessons that I have learned this year; facing my own mortality has taught me so much about living.

    Joe’s garden nourishing my body

  • Yoga and meditation. They have changed my life and the way I handle stress. I recommend it to everyone. If you would like to take a look at meditation, Deepak Chopra is currently offering a free 21-day meditation challenge on the law of abundance. These are 15 minute guided meditation sessions that you can access by going to Oprah.com/Chopra.
  • I am grateful for my son’s tutor Sarah. She has become invaluable as he struggles to pass algebra. Today was his final; fingers crossed!
  • Our new kitchen appliances; cooking for three teenage boys is much more enjoyable with a nice range.
  • I am thankful for the continued benefits that I receive from a company that I have not been able to contribute to for over a year. I do not take for granted that they pay for my health insurance and that I still have an income because of their generous benefit program.
  • I am happy that my hair grew back. Bald is hard to pull off and wigs are hot and itchy!

    Venice, Italy

  • I am happy to have the tissue expander out of my body. I had a hard plastic “squeaky toy” in my chest wall for most of the year, and now it has been replaced by a soft implant. Unfortunately all of the radiation that I have had is slowing the healing time way down, but I have two gorgeous breasts and for that, I am grateful.
  • I am grateful for Oprah. The quality of the content that she airs literally saved my soul and I spent countless hours learning from her and her guests this past year.
  • I love the Mercedes I bought this year. I never talk about material possessions, because I really don’t care about them, but I really appreciate the quality of this car and the way it looks.
  • And lastly, I am grateful to YOU for reading all of this; YOU are touching my life one way or the other just by reading this, thank you.

    Indoor skydiving Curtis, James, Trina, Joe and Johnny