10 Years of Lung Leavin’ Day

March 10, 2016
Heather Von St. James

Heather Von St. James is a 10-year mesothelioma survivor and has made it her mission to help others with mesothelioma around the globe. She shares her personal story to help spread hope and awareness to others going through a similar situation, in the hope that one day no one else will have to.

My sister called it “Lung Leavin’ Day.” It was the day my lung left. She and my husband Cameron had dreamed up this celebration that would take place a year later, on the anniversary of my surgery.

When I tell people that I celebrate the day I had my lung removed, I get all sorts of reactions: shock, laughter, pity. Most people, however, are confused. Why on earth would I celebrate something as tragic as having my lung removed because of cancer? Most people don’t celebrate the loss of something. Most people don’t celebrate what cancer took from them.

Lung Leavin' Day 2014

I chose to think of the day of my surgery, February 2, 2006, as the day I was given my life back from my malignant pleural mesothelioma diagnosis—the day I faced my greatest fear and survived it. My surgery was a success. Over the next year, I went through 4 sessions of chemotherapy and 30 sessions of radiation.

On that first anniversary, my husband came home from work with 2 plates, a Sharpie, and a cake. It was bitterly cold—below zero. We would start a bonfire outside, write our fears on the plates, and then smash them in the fire. When I went to write my first fear, I thought of the most obvious one: cancer coming back. But other fears surfaced, fears I had buried deep and didn’t give voice to before. This felt like my chance to face those, too. We went outside to the fire and took a moment to reflect on the past year and how far we had come. I smashed my plate into the fire—a cathartic embodiment of letting go. Then my husband smashed his. We came back inside feeling exhilarated and decided that this was something we had to share with others. We joked about it becoming a national holiday. This is how the annual Lung Leavin’ Day celebration was born.

Lung Leavin' Day 2016.
Credit: Kevin Wood Photography.

Lung Leavin' Day 2016.
Credit: Kevin Wood Photography.

The next year, about 40 friends and family members came to celebrate with us. We supplied the plates and the Sharpies, and everyone threw their fears into the fire.

The celebration grew year after year, and eventually we turned it into a way to give back to the mesothelioma community. Lung Leavin’ Day became a fundraiser for mesothelioma and asbestos education. I have been continually humbled and honored by the enthusiastic response from the people and businesses who donate goods and services to be raffled off at the party and the generosity of my guests who help me raise money.

This year, my 10th year as a mesothelioma survivor and 10 years since my surgery, I set a goal of raising $10,000. Instead, we’ve raised over $28,000!

Lung Leavin' Day 2012

But it’s not about the money. It’s about relationships and growth and living. We have many friends from all walks of life, and on this night, they all come together—politics don’t matter, religion doesn’t matter, lifestyle doesn’t matter. This night is a chance for every person to start over. It is a night for them to reflect on what is holding them back, identify it, and conquer it. There is great power in the simple act of writing your fears, giving them a voice, and then smashing them to pieces. share on twitter

In some way, everyone who attends this event—everyone who comes to smash a fear—is on their own 10-year survival journey. Whether a cancer diagnosis, divorce, a personal tragedy, or addiction, this is a day to reclaim whatever your fear has tried to take from you.

If it weren’t for the support of my friends and the cancer community, Lung Leavin’ Day would still be just my husband, me, and my daughter out there smashing plates. Ten years ago, we only dreamed that our story and our celebration would one day impact and inspire others and give hope to those in similar situations. I’m proud to say we’ve started to accomplish that.

Lung Leavin’ Day has grown to have over 100 people in attendance, and people all over the world in the mesothelioma community know about it. Our hope is that more people keep learning about it and joining in, smashing their own plate of fear, literally or figuratively.


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