Monthly Archives: November 2016

Looking Good When Your Body Doesn’t Feel It – A Survivor’s Story

This is a guest blog post by Heather Von St. James, a Mesothelioma survivor.

heather-survivor

The beauty business can be wonderful, hard, lovely, and shallow all at once. But this was the career I had chosen, and I loved it. I specialized in cutting and color, but could do pretty much any salon service from pedicures to brow waxing. I had even done a body treatment or two when we were in a pinch.

I loved my job. I loved taking care of people and making them look and feel their best. I had a passion about my career that was contagious – and my clients loved it. I took great pride in having fun and colorful hair, on point makeup and stylish shoes. This was after all, and industry built on appearances.

I was part of this world for over 10 years when the cancer was diagnosed. I found out I had cancer just 3½ months after the birth of my only child. The pregnancy was incredibly easy. I had very little morning sickness, only gained 5 lbs. the whole time. The only problem was I was beyond tired. I had never been pregnant before and had heard fatigue was par for the course, so I didn’t think anything was amiss. Quite the opposite actually.

People always told me how good I looked. They said things like, “If I saw you from the back, I would never know you were even pregnant!” So I took it as a compliment that I hadn’t gained the weight that I thought I would. The only complication was Lily, my daughter ended up being a frank breech. I had to have an emergency C –section, but she came into the world a healthy 8 lbs., 14 oz.

After having Lily, I started losing even more weight, up to 5 lbs. a week. I chalked it up to breastfeeding and working full time. People always commented on how good I was looking, and that being a new mom sure agreed with me. I was the thinnest I had been in years! But the trouble was, I felt terrible. I was exhausted, I was having trouble sleeping, and I was having trouble breathing.

I just thought this is what postpartum was. I didn’t have anything to compare it to, so I just powered through.

Finally after 3 months of feeling worse and worse, and having more troubling symptoms, I went to see my doctor. After a series of scans and tests we had our answer: malignant pleural mesothelioma.

I was in shock. All at once, my world had come to a screeching halt. My life went from being a working mom, to medical appointments and scans. I would spend the next year fighting for my life through surgical intervention to rid my body of the cancer, followed by chemotherapy and radiation.

I was sicker than I had ever been in my life. I made my mind up early, though, that even though I was sick, I was still going to do my best to take care of myself. I figured, you can take the girl out of the salon, but you can’t take the salon out of the girl! Just because I had cancer didn’t mean I was going to stop caring how I looked. I was platinum blonde when I got sick, so I decided to dye my hair a darker brown, closer to my natural color, so it would be easy to deal with over the next few months. I figured it was only a matter of time before I lost it all due to chemo anyway, so why not have fun.

I found out later, that not all chemo causes hair loss, and the type I was getting happened to be one of them, so I never did lose my hair. What was sad, was one of my former co-workers accused me of faking cancer because I didn’t lose my hair. She seriously said that I probably was making everything up because “everyone knows you lose your hair with chemo.” All I could do was laugh and shake my head.

I found that many people said some really crazy things during my cancer battle. People would ask how I felt or how I was doing, and when I said the truth, basically I felt terrible, or was the most sick as I ever had been, I always got the same response. “But you LOOK good.” It was as if looking good made everything ok. And it meant that since I “looked,” good I obviously could not feel as bad as I said.

I began to wonder what I was SUPPOSED to look like… I guess I was supposed to be bald, not wear any make up, spend all my time in pajamas, and moan aloud all the time. I honestly think that is what many people expected, and when they saw me with my hair and makeup done, and dressed in normal clothes, it surprised them. I made every effort during my treatment to make sure I took the time to do those things. The truth of the matter was it made me feel better.

Being a cancer patient, you desperately want any sense of normalcy because everything is so NOT normal… for me? Taking care of myself and my appearance made me feel better. I wore normal clothes, not sweats or pajamas, unless I was in bed. I even got dressed up to go to chemo. I Joked that even though, I might be sick, I’ll be damned if I would look that way!

I was the only person I ever knew who wore red lipstick to get a blood transfusion. My elderly mother-in-law often took me to my chemo appointments, and all the nurses assumed I was there to accompany her for an appointment, not the other way around. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the looks of surprise, replaced by pity when they realized I was the one there for the infusion.

Over the last 10 years, I’ve learned that people don’t say these things to be cruel or unkind, quite the opposite actually. I believe they are trying to encourage, not disparage. I’ve learned to let the comments roll off, and instead of getting upset I try to educate, and I’ve learned myself what not to say to others who have gone through treatment.

I still care about my appearance. I have a shocking white blonde mohawk that has become my trademark. I like to make sure I look nice when I go places, not for other people, but for myself. When I talk to people I don’t know, they are always shocked when I tell them all I’ve been through. My scars are not visible unless I show you where they are.

You can’t tell from my appearance that I have only one lung or only part of a diaphragm. I’ve gained some of the weight back I lost during treatment, so it isn’t obvious what happened to my body as a result of the cancer – which is why when people still say, “Wow! But you LOOK so good!” I just smile and say, “Thank you.”

 

Thriving Through the Holidays

This post is brought to you in partnership with iThrive Cancer Survivorship Plan.

This time of year there is an anticipation of festive times with family and friends. But the holidays can also bring increased stress. While we often can’t control the amount of stress we have in our lives, we can control how we support ourselves during stressful times. This holiday season—and throughout the entire year—find time to focus on ways to rejuvenate mind, body and spirit. In this short five-minute video, the iTHRIVE five Rs of rejuvenation are discussed. These are gentle reminders of the many proactive ways we can give ourselves that extra support during stressful times. It’s time to thrive this holiday season!


 

About the Author: Karolyn A. Gazella has been writing about wellness since 1992. She is an award-winning publisher and the author of several books. Along with Dr. Lise Alschuler, she is the co-creator of the iTHRIVE Cancer Survivorship Plan. She and Dr. Alschuler also co-host a weekly radio show called Five to Thrive Live on the Cancer Support Network (w4cs.com) and iHeart Radio (iHeart.com). You can find more about their work at www.iTHRIVEplan.com.