Heather Von St James is a prime example of choosing life over death, literally. As a Trauma Expert and Life Mastery Coach who promotes healing from the inside out, I am mesmerized by Heather’s fight from refusing to being victimized by disease, moving beyond survivor to evolving into celebrating a new life as a “thriver” and rising to her Ideal Self.
Her story is unique because, with this type of cancer, she should not have survived yet she did. Heather demonstrates how to #breakfree from the negative ramification of her tragedy and triumphantly rises to her purpose and dream come true life. She clarifies, “I don’t call myself a cancer survivor. I say I’m a cancer thriver. And so that’s kind of how I look at life now, after everything.”
I love this, as it is part of my #BreakFree philosophy of evolving from victim to survivor to the authentic self, which I refer to as your Ideal Self (IS). As victims we are reactive, as survivors, we are still tethered to the past where the dis-ease continues to be part of our identity; while our evolvement to our Ideal Self allows us to #breakfree and to be free to live, renewed in every way.
As the trauma educator and psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk explains, that when in the victim state of mind, the brain is unable to integrate traumatic memories, only reactively relive them.
As a survivor, you have mentally and emotionally distanced from the event, so the sensory system is normalized, and escalation doesn’t occur. Your ability to choose how to emote and behavior is manageable. However, the trauma is still stored in the body, making you vulnerable to depression and anxiety that impacts the body down to the cellular level threatening resilience over time.
Through Bessel van der Kolk’s longtime research and innovation in trauma treatment, he has found that we can restore emotional and mental stability to the status quo prior to the trauma event. We have the resilience to cultivate in the face of trauma. As you emerge into your Ideal Self new memories become integrated and transformed into stories that help us move forward.
Heather shares her story, “I am 50 years old. But when I was just 36 and a new mom… I was diagnosed with malignant pleural mesothelioma… terminal cancer that is most often associated with this asbestos exposure. Upon my diagnosis, my doctor gave me 15 months to live…that was 14 years ago. We were thrown from the best, most joyous time in our lives to the lowest of lows.”
Heather started where she was at, in a life-altering experience, the arrival of a having a baby and starting life new, then to be thrown into a whirlwind of facing death’s door. Heather elaborates on the doctor’s news, “… he told me…’you have 15 months to live.’ And I just looked at him. I said, No, I have a new baby. I need to raise her. She needs her mom. So. what else do you have for me? …I wouldn’t take that for an answer…” Her magical transformation began as she immediately changed the narrative and introduced the elements of healing and longevity.
Heather continued with the doctor’s response, “’ well, you could do chemotherapy and radiation, and maybe get five years’, and (there was) my husband sitting next to me shaking his head. And I’m like, No, what else do you have for me? Because I know you’ve got something else. He’s like,’ well, there’s this surgery, but you would have to travel.’ And he goes, ‘but it’s your best bet for living maybe 10 years.’ And we’re like, Okay, get us there.”
Once the surgery was set, Heather’s next step was to choose to act, she shares, “And we flew across the country and I ended up having my entire left lung removed. “ Once home, the onus of deciding what archetype to emanate was imperative for Heather. She emphasizes, “I never ever went into the ‘Why me?’ I never went into victim mode. And I never was like ‘oh poor me.’ For me. It was like, ‘Okay, well I’ll get better… I will do this… my body will respond. And I would talk to my body. And I would be like, okay, every cell in my body you need
to start with finding the right way that you were made.”
Heather’s insight to being more than a body took her healing to the inside out. She captured the vision of being her own healer, as she reflects, “…after the surgery, I talked to my body and really thanked it for getting me through the surgery. And I believe that gratitude…looking back, I didn’t know what I know now about gratitude and how amazing that is for a body and a mind” “I really made friends with…the tumor and I nicknamed it… So, I would (talk to the) tumor,
‘…just stay there don’t grow, just be good.’” As Heather’s mastery of integrating her mind/body/spirit celebration of choosing life, she began to #breakfree from the dis-ease of the cancer and live her purpose. She notes, “But I was just never the victim. And my doctor saw that, and he actually pulled me into rooms of other patients while I was in the hospital recovering to talk to them.” Heather could not deny the calling presented to her, sharing, “And he is the one that really set me on the path to advocacy…This is a greater thing than just about my illness, and that I really had a gift of helping people.” Now Heather had a focus, a focus bigger than herself. She reveals her revelation, “I think that is really the lesson that I learned was that it’s not about me, that it’s really about helping others.
And through my example, others can to thrive or…find it within themselves to overcome crazy odds that are against them. “
As a 14-year survivor of a disease that kills 98% of people within five years, in her giving back she discovered, there is a community and support creating healing that is larger than individual survival. Together they created a momentum of resiliency and commitment knowing that their fight against cancer demands confronting the best and the worst. Heather elaborates, “…there’s more than just me. There’s quite a few of us and we’re a great community and we
work together to inspire others to come to appreciate the glory of life BECAUSE we know the dark side as well.”
I have found from my work with trauma that after walking through the fear, embracing the power of love, the Ideal Self rises and the primary desire and focus evolve as Heather shares, “Instead of it being at loss and mourning about it, we turned it into a celebration, because that’s the day I got my life given back to me.”
We change more quickly and permanently through rituals and symbols as Heather’s celebratory tradition indicates. She shares, “And so now we have a big party on the anniversary of my surgery February 2, the tradition is you take a plate, and you write your fears on a plate and you smash it in a bonfire in our backyard. And now it’s grown to be this fundraiser for mesothelioma research, and we’ve raised over $40,000. We’ve reframed what could be something tragic and made it into a celebration of life and of living. Heather took a stand and made the decision to live. She started with reframing, building a purpose and living her life.
Heather’s journey is a prototype behind the creation of the #BreakFree Movement, healing from the inside and evolving outside the therapy room and, then, getting in the community leading the way from trauma to triumph. As a community, we meet people, with like missions as they too successfully rooted, and rebounded. They, too, are seeking to give back, spread the magic and rise to full healing. It is within the power of the community that we are able to heal the fractured foundation of our planet.
Heather’s mission is honorable and the key to healing. Yet I know the road was not without its challenges, so I inquired how Heather kept the momentum with moving forward and to get
where she is at.
Heather shares an important element in her healing, the imperative role of hiring a therapist and coach to guide her through the jungle of this dis-ease, “…hiring a coach or hiring a therapist is a wonderful thing to help you sort out all of the battlement in your head. I had a
therapist, (who) helped me get me through…My seventh year was a kind of a tough year where I didn’t really know what my purpose was. So, then I hired a coach this last year. And that was
such an eye-opener for me because she really helped me determine my purpose.”
Heather adds how she took action with her purpose, “I just actually launched a coaching business to help cancer patients because there’s such a need to help survivors thrive because you are thrust into this world. ‘Oh, you’re done with your cancer treatment go back to life.’ It’s not that easy. People struggle so bad with trying to get to the new normal… Even though I’m 14 years out, even though I’m considered, you know, what a lot of people consider cured. There’s always this looming shadow of what if, and it’s learning to live despite that shadow, …and so many people don’t know how to do that. And so, I really thank you for doing this (the Break Free Movement). Because it really does help people go deep inside and find it within themselves to get through the trauma and help and thrive. And so, helping others …gets me out of my head…it helps me give other people purpose in what they do and help them live their life. It’s not about me, it’s about helping others. “ And that is the magic of true healing; start where you are at; know your desire, speak up and act, remember the human resilience, identify your purpose and then give forward.
Thank you, Heather, for allowing me to share in a mutual mission, my hope is, as we (the community) BreakFree, others (worldwide) will speak up too, and we can then join in healing, hand in hand and all fearlessly, break glass!!