By HEATHER VON ST. JAMES
A sense of humor can be a great tool for getting through a trying time. It is an attribute that my husband Cam and I relied on when we faced the most difficult time of our lives. In November 2005, I was diagnosed with mesothelioma. In order to increase my chances of survival, I underwent a risky surgery called extrapleural pneumonectomy. During this procedure, surgeons removed my left lung, half of my diaphragm, as well as the lining of my heart.
This was no ordinary procedure. The situation was complicated by the fact that I was a new mother. Luckily, I was able to use the sense of humor I was blessed with to shed some light onto a seemingly dark situation. I learned that my surgery was to take place on February 2. As a result, I jokingly named my tumor Punxsutawney Phil. I told everyone that if the tumor saw its shadow during removal, I’d have six more weeks of recovery ahead. It made the surgery seem less daunting. Even my sister joined in on the fun. She decided we should name this day that changed my life forever. Soon, we began to call February 2, LungLeavin’ Day- the day I lost my lung.
Eventually, my sister and husband began discussing how to celebrate LungLeavin’ Day. My sister’s idea was influenced by her experience with fire walking- she came up with the idea of writing our fears on an object that is to be destroyed in a fire. Since the idea of walking on a burning plank was seemingly unattractive, my husband decided that we should write our fears on plates that could be smashed into a fire.
One year after my surgery, Cameron went out and purchased two plates and a Sharpie. On that cold night, we wrote our fears on these plates, headed outside, and threw them into the fire pit together. We found this plate smashing to be extremely cathartic and felt we should extend this experience to include family and friends.
Over the years, LungLeavin’ Day has grown to include more than 75 friends and family members. In addition, we felt as if we should give back and began using this event to help raise money for mesothelioma. All money is donated to the three organizations that have been of great help: The Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation, the International Mesothelioma Program at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, MA, and the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization.
LungLeavin’ Day isn’t just a celebration for those surviving or battling cancer, it’s for everybody. All people have fears to eradicate. Even the children get in on this event by drawing their fears on paper plates and throwing them in the fire. Lily, our daughter, always looks forward to the event.
This year, we decided to expand the event to include even more people. I’ll be streaming the event live on my Facebook page, and even designed an interactive webpage where you can virtually smash a fear of your own. We hope you’ll join us!
Heather Von St. James is an 8-year mesothelioma cancer survivor and continues to dedicate her life to spreading both inspiration and awareness of this preventable disease. She currently resides in Roseville, MN, with her husband, Cameron, and daughter, Lily. Connect with her on Facebook.