At just 36 years old I was diagnosed with mesothelioma. This very aggressive and rare cancer left me, a new mother to a 3 ½-month-old, with a life expectancy of just 15 months. Through determination, the support of my family, friends, and doctors, and unlimited hope I beat the odds and am now an 11-year cancer survivor!

Today I’m sharing 23 powerful lessons I have learned as a cancer survivor.

23 Powerful Lessons to Learn from a Cancer Survivor

1. Things can, and do, change in an instant.

The fact that things can, and do, change in an instant is something I’m intimately familiar with. With life in the palm of my hand – a great career, a loving husband, a beautiful baby girl and a warm home – I was diagnosed with mesothelioma cancer.

23 Powerful Lessons to Learn from a Cancer Survivor

This was not something I ever planned for or even thought might happen to me. But as a cancer survivor, I have now come to learn that everything can change so quickly, you just have to learn, adapt and make the most of what you have.

2. With hope, the odds don’t matter.

My surgeon Dr. Sugarbaker told me these six soothing words soon after I learned about my short diagnosis. Fearful I wouldn’t be around to watch my daughter grow up, he told me “with hope, the odds don’t matter.” With that in mind, I found hope in my family, his skills as a great surgeon, and my body’s own abilities to heal – and it worked! I have now outlived my best-case prognosis of 10 years and do not plan on stopping now!

3. It is hard to see the light while you are in the midst of the darkness.

It is hard to see the light while you are in the midst of the darkness, but the light does come. Sometimes you need to look for it, and sometimes it finds you.

4. A diagnosis will either turn someone away from God or cause the person to be angry.

Some people adapt a ‘why me’ attitude and others believe that God has a plan for everyone and put their trust in him to heal their body.

5. No matter what you face, don’t let it define you and make you a victim.

Though I was dealt a challenging hand, as a cancer survivor I never allowed myself to lie down and be the victim. I turned that victim mentality into inner strength and fought my hardest to beat cancer that was attacking my body.

6. Comparing your recovery to anyone else just sets you up for failure.

Like anything in life, you are on your own path. No two people have the same struggles, the same opportunities or the same story, so don’t compare your story to theirs.

7. Find a community.

Finding a community of people who not only understand but live with a similar diagnosis is incredibly empowering. I found my community in other mesothelioma patients as well as in others with the same passion for banning asbestos in the United States.

8. You can never be too educated about the thing you want to advocate for.

I advocate for mesothelioma patients. I am always reading about new cancer treatments, staying up-to-date on current laws surrounding asbestos use, and talking to patients about their experiences. I attend and speak at many conferences pushing to ban asbestos use by sharing how it affected my life in such a dramatic way.

9. One would think that I would run out of the room, but every time I meet someone new, my heart grows.

I have met countless friends through our mesothelioma connection….

10. Losing people is hard, but losing everything I’ve fought for would be even harder.

…and many of them are tragically not here today. But I will not let their deaths be in vain. Instead, each friend I lose encourages me to fight harder to make sure no one else has to ever go through what I went through.

11. Recognize emotions for what they are.

Recognize emotions for what they are, give them their time and don’t bury them. Doing so will make them grow into something bigger than they began as. Dealing with the emotions that come with loss help diminish survivor’s guilt and other feelings surrounding death.

23 Powerful Lessons to Learn from a Cancer Survivor

12. Love like that doesn’t stop simply because one passes.

Love like that doesn’t stop simply because one passes. It stays on in everything you do.

13. You never get over the loss of a loved one.

I don’t think you ever get over the loss of a loved one, but you somehow get used to the feeling of emptiness that is always there.

14. The best way to get out of my own head is to help others.

I have always said that the best way to get out of my own head is to help others.There are times when my mind wanders, fearful that my cancer will return, worried for something similar happening to my husband or daughter. This is most common when I attend my biannual checkup, where I often get ‘scanxiety.’

To calm my nerves I instead help other mesothelioma patients at the hospital. I am able to connect with them the way no one else could because I lived it. Sharing my story, giving them hope, answering questions and simply helping them through probably one of the toughest times in their lives is the best way to forget about my worries and calm my mind.

15. The truth is almost always better than the fear I’ve imagined and blown out of proportion in my mind.

I was once told ‘fear’ means “false evidence appearing real.” It’s so true. Many times you fear something and without facing it, the fear builds and grows in your mind to something that hardly resembles actuality.

16. Be upfront and honest.

Be upfront and honest. Yes, I had cancer, but everyone pitying me and walking on eggshells around me just made me uncomfortable.

17. There is no right or wrong way to celebrate the holidays with a cancer diagnosis in your family – but it should be on your terms.

If you want to pretend as if nothing is different, do that. If you want to make it extra special because it might be your last, do that. Whatever you do, do it on your terms.

18. The meaning of life changes.

To celebrate life takes on new meaning when you’re told yours won’t last long.

19. Kids are incredibly perceptive and deserve the truth.

There are no parenting manuals on how to raise kids after you’ve fought cancer, but my husband and I have found the best way to approach the subject with our daughter is to be open and honest. She knows when something is wrong and can tell when mommy is sad, so we made the decision to not hide the facts from her. This has made her mature faster than many children her age, but she also shows much more empathy.

20. Remind yourself this is your life, live it with passion.

Remind yourself this is your life, live it with passion. Don’t wait for something like a cancer diagnosis to wake you up.

23 Powerful Lessons to Learn from a Cancer Survivor

21. Your body has been through so much. Give it a chance to heal and recover.

Waiting for my body to return to the way it was before cancer is pointless. It is different. To remove the tumor I went through a surgery that removed my left lung, lung lining, a rib and part of my diaphragm. It is just not possible that I can be as active as I was before, and it is important to know that. Listen to your body and give it the rest it needs.

22. Normal changes.

Before cancer, I had a great career at a salon. The physical demands of the job meant it was not possible to return, but that is okay because I have a new passion now and that is mesothelioma advocacy. Before cancer, I had many friends. Because of the intensity of what I went through we drifted apart, but that is okay because I have made many new friends who understand what I went through and how it has changed me.

There is no normal anymore. Normal went out the window the minute your world was turned upside. Everything you knew, every breath, every heartbeat, every day you wake up—it’s the new, different normal.

23. If you can make it through cancer, you can make it through anything!

If you can make if, through cancer, you can make if through anything.


Heather Von St. James

Heather Von St. James is an 11-year survivor of malignant pleural mesothelioma. She dedicates her time as an advocate for those affected by this rare cancer, by educating others about the dangers of asbestos and working to get asbestos banned in the United States. She lives in Roseville, MN with her husband, daughter, and house full of pets. Check out her work, blog and awareness efforts to help her in her mission to spread hope.

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