As much as I love the Christmas season, I’m aware that there are others who are just trying to hold on in the midst of hundreds of twinkling lights and merry smiles. So, I thought it might be nice to switch channels a bit with a guest post from someone who’s been there.
If you are having a tough time right now, I hope Heather’s guest post will be a source of encouragement and help restore your faith this holiday season.
When most people think of the holiday season, their favorite Christmas song might play in the back of their head. Maybe the smell of pine suddenly appears and brings them back to their mom decorating the house with Christmas ornaments and cherished nativity scenes and of course, Elf on the Shelf. For most, the end of November signifies leftover Thanksgiving food and more importantly… the beginning of the Christmas season!!
I absolutely love the month of December and everything that comes with it. As a cancer survivor, my take on the holiday season has changed. My battle with cancer began November of 2005 with my diagnosis of malignant pleural mesothelioma, which meant that December was wrought with uncertainty and the fervent prayers I’d be there to raise my baby girl, Lily. She needed me, my husband needed me and that holiday season took on a decidedly different tone as we waited for what would happen when I began treatment the following February. Faith, at that time, took the shape of the fierce hope and determination that I’d be there to share many more Christmases, years and memories watching my baby girl grow up with my family.
When I first heard the words pleural mesothelioma from my doctor, it was followed by the words, “If you don’t do anything, you have about 15 months to live.” At the time, I wasn’t aware how my faith would adapt and evolve, but I knew at the time that losing faith wasn’t an option for me…not with a husband and three and a half month-old baby. I needed to be here to watch her grow up with a mom.
Throughout treatment, faith showed up at different times and in many ways, guiding me to knowing I was going to get through this in the end. Beginning with my surgery, which resulted in the removal of my left lung, I had faith in my surgeon, Dr. Sugarbaker who had expertise and experience in treating mesothelioma. In the following months, during the chemotherapy and radiation, I believed in the drugs’ ability to kill off any lingering cancer cells.
On those days when I was too weak to get out of bed, I still believed in my body’s strength and it’s ability to recover from the chemicals and radiation that broke me down along with the cancer. Sometimes, my faith in prayer was the only thing that sustained me. I was so sick; praying to God to get me through just the next minute, then the next one after that. There were times when it was literally minute by minute. But, as I prayed and watched the clock, I would eventually drift into fitful sleep; waking up a few hours later…feeling better.
Thankfully, my treatment was successful and I slowly regained strength; however, I found my faith was faltering. As I tried to put the pieces of my new life together, the community, values and people I had so closely aligned with since childhood began to slip away in those first years after treatment. I felt more and more disconnected; not from the faith or the values that had shaped my life as a Christian, but from a world and people who displaying hate and ignorance while claiming to share my values.
After my own experience with cancer and then as an advocate for other mesothelioma patients, I could no longer stay quiet or accept things I knew were not right in my own heart. Although it pained me, I began to drift further and further away from the faith of my youth. I was increasingly adrift for years, unmoored by the loss of the church as I had always known it.
Still, I never stopped looking for answers. Eventually, I made a friend who was also grappling with similar issues. Together, we helped guide one another back to the faith we had both once known and had been missing. Slowly but surely, the faith I so strongly held before began to find its way back into my life. I realized the extreme odds I had beaten to survive mesothelioma and the reality that most people who were dealt my hand did not live to watch their children grow up.
Watching friends, even my own father, lose their lives to cancer, kept me down for years. But one day I recognized that voice again in my heart and it’s only message was “have faith.” I learned I didn’t need to keep asking all those troubling questions and instead started to believe in the answers I had already received.
If you asked me what faith meant before my diagnosis, I would have a very different answer than what I hold in my heart today. After reflecting on life’s ups and downs, especially those of the past 11 years, I can say faith takes on more than just one form. It means believing that God uses all things: your medical team, your body, your friends, family and community to speak to you. That’s what I think faith is to me. It’s all encompassing.
This holiday season, I hope you celebrate the true meaning behind this blessed time of year with those you love.
Heather Von St. James lives in Roseville, Minnesota with her husband Cameron Von St. James, daughter Lily Rose and two dogs Rhino and Hannah. When not advocating for mesothelioma awareness, she can be found gardening, volunteering at her daughter’s school, or waiting in line at Starbucks. To get in touch with Heather, you can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org