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Lung Leavin' Day

In November 2005, at the age of 36, just three months after her daughter Lily was born, Heather Von St. James was diagnosed with malignant pleural mesothelioma, a form of cancer usually caused by asbestos. Most people aren't diagnosed with the disease at such a young age, but Von St. James was exposed to asbestos as a child, which likely led to the early onset. Her father had been a drywall construction worker, and Von St. James often wore his asbestos-covered jacket after he got home from work.

Von St. James was told that if nothing was done, she only had 15 months to live, or that she maybe could have 5 years if she underwent chemotherapy and radiation. She was also told that if she tried an experimental procedure, she possibly would have 10 years. She decided to go for it, having her lung removed and receiving treatment at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.

The day Von St. James had her lung removed was the most frightening day of her life. Her sister wanted to lighten the heavy moment and named the day "Lung Leavin' Day." A long recovery followed, which included chemotherapy and radiation. It took months after that for Von St. James to feel better physically.

Emotionally, she felt lost. Among other fears, she was afraid of the cancer's recurrence, of death, that her husband would become a widower, and of not being there for her daughter. She met others who had the disease, they became friends, and then the new friends would pass away, which also took a toll on her. But her fear was eventually replaced with a passion for awareness. She continued to meet with other patients and their families, wanting to inspire them and give them hope. Of fear she said, "I decided I wouldn't let that control me, and neither should you!"

Lung Leavin' Day became a yearly event to overcome one's fears. Von St. James and her family and friends—sometimes over 100 of them—began gathering together at her home each year. Many of them began writing their fears on plates with Sharpies and smashing them in a bonfire in the backyard, to symbolize they were taking control of their fears. The day also began being used to raise money for mesothelioma awareness, with tens of thousands of dollars being raised.

How to Observe Lung Leavin' Day

Some ways to mark the day include:

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