Heather Von St. James and I have both been accused of wearing rose-colored glasses. We are both optimists; others might call us fools. I think being fools might have saved our lives.
Ten years ago, I got an unexpected and distressing diagnosis: Barrett’s Esophagus, a pre-cancer condition caused by stomach acid eating away the lining of the esophagus. It is irreversible. Once you’ve got it, you can’t get rid of it. You can only slow the process of the cancer by diet and medication. I saw my doctor yearly for checks how the cells were behaving. Barrett’s is not an automatic death sentence, but I’d already had a friend die of cancer that originated in her esophagus, and I was scared. I didn’t dwell on it, though. I put on my rose-colored glasses, cleaned up my diet, and took my meds.
I usually only let myself dwell on the condition just before and after my yearly check up. If I told anyone about it, I got all twisted up in the telling, because there were other complications that made things worse, so I pretty much kept quiet about it, and kept those rose-colored glasses on. Three years in, I came out of the operating room and my doctor said “It’s gone.” I wasn’t sure I heard him right because I’m put under general anesthesia for the procedure, and when I come out of it, I’m stoned and miss a lot of information. My husband, Al, is always with me, so I looked at him. He was smiling.
“Gone? But I thought…”
“I know,” the doctor said “but it’s gone.”
Wave after wave of relief washed me clean of fear. This was a miracle. But it is nothing compared to the miracle Heather has experienced. Heather had just given birth to a baby girl, Lily, when she was diagnosed with mesothelioma, which is the cancer caused by asbestoes. Heather was really young to have this type of cancer, but her dad worked construction and she liked to wear his work coat, which was covered with the dust from his job. People with mesothelioma don’t usually live very long. Heather was given 15 months. But she refused to give up hope. She had a lung removed and to lighten the situation, her sister named Heather’s surgery date “Lung Leaving’ Day.”
The original Lung Leaving’ Day was nine years ago. Every year since then, Heather and her family celebrate her wellness by writing their fears on plates and smashing them into a fire. Because even women who wear rose-colored glasses have to take them off sometimes. We fear a return of the disease. We wonder when our luck will run out. For Heather, smashing that fear into a fire with all of her loved ones around her is the way she keeps hope for a long and healthy life alive. She says “Don’t take a death sentence as a diagnosis.” Pretty rosy words for someone who’s been through cancer hell. But she’s lived to tell the tale, lived to see Lily grow, lived to start a foundation for research into mesothelioma.
And personally, I think Heather turning this thing around to make it about helping others is pretty awesome. It might be why she’s still here. It’s why tomorrow I’m going to write my own fears on a plate and throw them into a fire. And you can bet I’ll be wearing my rose-colored glasses.