Heather von St. James was diagnosed with Malignant Pleural Mesothelioma shortly after the birth of her daughter, Lily Rose. This is a rare type of cancer that occurs in the thin layer of cells lining the body’s internal organs, known as the mesothelium. It’s often associated with asbestos exposure.  At the age of 36, Heather was given a life expectancy of no more than 15 months. Click here to read more about Heather, her family, and Lung Leavin’ Day.

Another Lung Leavin’ Day has passed and the party over the bonfire is just a pile of ashes with shards of plates surrounding it. When it’s all over, I usually just lay in bed, the adrenaline still running high. I replay the night over and realize, if it wasn’t for my diagnosis of mesothelioma, this would not happen. There are remnants of confetti scattered all over the yard from the confetti cannons, and the twinkle lights are all still up. I look over the back yard and instead of seeing all the work that needs to be done to get it back to normal, I smile. I know people’s lives were changed that night. How do I know? I saw it happen.

You see, Lung Leavin’ Day is a celebration unlike any other. There are many cancer anniversary parties, but this one touches people. The reason why? I don’t know for sure, but have some ideas. Having permission to break plates might have something to do with it!

The tradition of the night is to take a plate, write your fears on it, and smash it in the bonfire. The purpose of the party started out as a celebration of life and overcoming fears, and over the years it has grown to encompass all cancer warriors, not just mesothelioma.

This year was no different. This year we had many first-time attendees along with veterans of the party. Among those first timers were three other cancer survivors. All different types, all different stages and all different ages. What happens is a coming together. A bond is formed when all the sudden you realize you aren’t alone in your fight. We all share the same fears, and desires. The type of cancer doesn’t matter.

As the plate shards built up in the fire, cheers erupt from the crowd as one by one, people take their turn smashing their fears. The people who have done it before offer pointers on how it’s done to best shatter the plate. The tinkling of the ceramic hitting the bonfire grate is mixed with yells of triumph. If it doesn’t break the first time, my husband will fish it out of the fire for another try, some fears are harder to smash than others!

Everyone gets their plate smashed though. There are some people who do two or three plates! I don’t care, whatever it takes to overcome those fears. Even the kids get into it. I have paper plates for the little ones. I love seeing their drawings of their fears and watching them chuck their plates in the fire. There is no age limit at our celebration, we encourage all ages to participate.

All in all, the party was smaller this year. I had many friends send their regrets for one reason or another that were not able to make it. Even though it was smaller, I had so many people travel from out of state to come: New York, Colorado, California and North Dakota, all people who wanted to come experience Lung Leavin’ Day.

I am still taking donations for another week, and then I will be able to wrap up the fundraising part. I must keep reminding myself that it isn’t about the money raised, but about the awareness and relationships.

I saw new friendships formed and old ones rekindled. People I see only once a year make sure to stop by to lend their support.

If not for mesothelioma, I would not be able to encourage people to face their fears, and conquer them, without my cancer diagnosis, the friendships formed and lives changed would not happen, and I find myself being incredibly thankful. Thankful that we could take something that changed our life on a foundational level, and turn it around into something that is meaningful to so many and to the whole meso community.

Yes, thankful for a cancer diagnosis. I never thought of it that way, but I am. I refuse to be the victim and have chosen instead to use it to make change, and I really feel like I’m doing that, one plate at a time.


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