Heather Von St. James
Mom | Mesothelioma Survivor
The third week in March is National Poison Prevention Week. It was established in 1961 by President Kennedy to educate Americans about the dangers of poisonings in the home and workplace. I am a mother and a mesothelioma survivor. My exposure to a cancer-causing toxin has not only shaped my relationship with my health, but also how I raise my daughter.
Environmental toxins were never something that was on my radar. Sure, when I was little my mom kept cleaning products out of reach, and we had classes in school about household poisons, but it was a non-issue in my life. It was not until I was pregnant did I start paying attention to things like pesticides on food and toxins in cleaning products I used. There is something about being pregnant that makes you do everything you can do to protect the baby growing in your belly. I started buying cleaning products that were less toxic, and I started eating healthier, choosing organic when I could, and making sure to thoroughly wash any fruits and vegetables that I couldn’t.
When I only gained 5 pounds through the whole pregnancy, I was pretty proud of myself. It was not until 3 ½ months after the birth did I find out there was a much more sinister reason for my minimal weight gain. I was diagnosed with a deadly cancer called malignant pleural mesothelioma, due to a build up of asbestos fibers in my lungs. I thought asbestos was banned, or at least controlled in its use. It was then I learned, the development of mesothelioma could take anywhere from 10-50 years. I had never worked with asbestos, but my dad had. We realized that unbeknownst to us, my dad had brought the deadly asbestos fibers home on his work clothes, particularly his work coat. It was this coat that I would wear to do my chores outside, or to just go get the mail, that exposed me to asbestos. Here I was 36 years old, sick with mesothelioma, all on account of an environmental toxin that manufacturers knew made people sick decades ago. In a moment, my life changed forever. All my future hopes and dreams fell away as I was faced with fighting for my life when my only baby was 3 1/2 months old. I wanted to protect my baby from everything, and now I was the one who was sick. This event woke the inner activist and advocate in me.
While going through treatment and raising a baby at the same time, I took great efforts to educate myself on the dangers of asbestos, what it was and where it was found. I dove into learning about environmental toxins and how to protect my daughter’s growing body from what was in everyday household cleaners, laundry detergent, and even that amazing smelling baby shampoo, lotion and baby powder that makes babies smell so good. I was very picky about those items. I refused to use baby powder if it had any talc in it. At one time, many of the talc deposits were contaminated with asbestos, and we all know how when you shake the baby powder out, it makes a huge cloud, that we all breathe in. Those fibers are incredibly small, and we could have inhaled literally millions in a puff of baby powder! I may have gone a bit overboard in the beginning, but after going through what I went through, I just wanted to try and protect my daughter.
As she has grown, I have continued to use environmentally responsible products, and have been teaching Lily the importance of watching for toxins in products. She has asked about the difference in organic produce as opposed to not, and we grow much of our own in the summer so she understands where food comes from.
I love that kids growing up in this time have so many more choices than we did. As a parent, raising a child to be conscience of what is happening in our environment and our homes is so important. They are the future, and instilling awareness of these products and substances at an early age ensures that we are hopefully leaving a better place for our kids and grand kids.
Heather Von St. James
Heather lives in Roseville, Minnesota with her husband Cameron, daughter Lily Rose and adorable pets Rhino, Hannah, Ruby, Gibson and Mina. As an 11-year survivor of malignant pleural mesothelioma she has dedicated her life to helping others facing a mesothelioma diagnosis as an advocate and activist. She blogs about her experiences and the current state of asbestos legislation at Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance. Heather’s life motto is “life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death,” and she tries to take advantage of all that life has to offer.