A passionate young mother, artist, and advocate shares how her mesothelioma diagnosis upended her life — and how she’s worked to put it back together with hope and conviction.

Julie Gundlach was given 6-12 months to live following her mesothelioma diagnosis: “My doctors told me, quite frankly, that I should put my affairs in order.”

That was over a decade and a half ago.

Now, Julie lives one day, one moment at a time and has built a life that is colored but not consumed by her cancer.

“You look back on doing that one-day-at-a-time thing, and all of a sudden you realize that you’ve accumulated a lot of days.”
– Julie Gundlach

Julie is a mother, artist, runner, business owner, and a fierce advocate for others who, like her, were shocked to hear they developed mesothelioma after being unknowingly exposed to asbestos.

An Unexpected Diagnosis

The Missouri native was 35 years old and otherwise healthy when she started having digestive issues. Her symptoms were so concerning that she booked an appointment with her doctor. It was August 2006. Her daughter, Madeline, was 3 years old. Julie expected an inconvenience, maybe a prescription or two, before carrying on with her summer.

Instead, imaging tests showed a mass in Julie’s pelvis. She was scheduled for surgery for what was assumed to be ovarian cancer, but once she was on the operating table, the medical team realized what Julie was actually facing: peritoneal mesothelioma, a specific type of this cancer that forms in the abdominal lining.

Her treatment plan changed course, but the doctors didn’t give her much hope.

“They used the phrase, ‘We’ll throw some chemo at it, but we don’t expect it to work.’”
– Julie Gundlach

The Journey Through Treatment Begins

The months and years that followed included many surgeries, chemotherapy treatments, and other medical procedures. Julie has traveled to New York to see a mesothelioma specialist more than 20 times. She has had multiple surgeries, each lasting 8-12 hours.

After each procedure, she would be hospital-bound for 10 days. After a cytoreductive surgery, Julie experienced life-threatening complications and spent a month recovering in a medically induced coma at a New York hospital.

“There’s a public perception that a cancer patient has walked through fire and been purified by the experience,” Julie said.

But that’s far from how she sees it. Julie is grateful to be alive, but mourns how much time she lost — time for herself, time with Madeline — to all the surgeries, recovery time, and brain fog from chemotherapy.

But Julie continues to fight through these frustrations and share her story so more people can see there is hope in the midst of a devastating diagnosis. You can read her story along with other survivors in a Free Mesothelioma Survivors Guide today.

Looking Back, Moving Forward

Although Julie and her doctors were shocked to learn that she had mesothelioma, this moment was not the first time her family had been impacted by asbestos.

In 2005, Julie’s father was diagnosed with asbestos-related lung cancer shortly before Julie was diagnosed with mesothelioma – tragically, he died from the illness.

This experience devastated Julie and exacerbated her fears after her own diagnosis just a year later.

“My biggest fear was that my daughter would grow up and not remember her mother.”
– Julie Gundlach

But as the years carried on, Julie felt blessed to experience so much with Madeline. She attended her soccer games, taught her how to drive, was there to see prom and high school graduation, and proudly got to witness Madeline embark on her college journey.

Julie has a unique gratitude for getting to experience these firsts in her daughter’s life, calling it a miracle: “getting to see a life that I never thought I’d see.”

When she remembers her devastating fear of not getting to watch her daughter grow up, of her life being stolen while Madeline was young, Julie says, “She will most certainly remember her mother. There’s no question about that!”

Milestone Markers

On two big anniversaries since her initial diagnosis, Julie chose to get meaningful tattoos, memorializing her fight and survival.

For her 5-year anniversary, Julie got a tattoo of a peacock’s feather. She heard the story of how the peacock got its beautiful feathers.

The tale describes poisonous fruit growing in the middle of an Indian village. A dull, gray bird started eating the poison and, instead of getting sick, it transformed into the brilliant blue and green creature we know today.

Julie sees herself in this story — first ingesting asbestos and then the traumatic rounds of chemo that followed and metabolizing that into the life she has now.

“I knew I could be that peacock. I could ingest poison and turn it into something beautiful.”
– Julie Gundlach

Ease in Muddy Waters

A few years before her 10-year anniversary, Julie decided to shift the focus of her life away from her fight against cancer and toward the future. She finally felt confident letting herself move forward and imagine a world for herself beyond mesothelioma.

She has explored parts of Africa, Bali, Croatia, Hawaii, Italy, and Mexico. She and a friend visited several Eastern Asian countries on a “quest for discovery.” During this time, she was again inspired by nature and found the vision for what would become her next milestone tattoo.

At a Hindu temple, Julie saw pink lotuses growing along the muddy banks of the rice paddies. The spiritual significance of the flower sparked a sense of recognition in finding the beauty in the mud of her own experience and watching her life take root and blossom one petal at a time.

“May I live like the lotus, at ease in muddy waters.”
– Buddhist quote

This symbol resonated with Julie so strongly that she not only received a lotus flower tattoo but also started a pottery shop called Muddy Lotus Clay Designs, marrying her artistic talents and unique perspective on life.

Read more about how Julie uses art to cope with her fight against cancer in our Free Mesothelioma Survivors Guide.

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Beauty in the Fight

Although she was committed to not let cancer rule her life, Julie found meaning in raising awareness of the dangers of asbestos and the corporations that profited off the cancer-causing material for decades.

Julie has shared her story countless times with news outlets, other patients and their families, and political leaders. She has visited Capitol Hill many times, rented booths at Earth Day festivals to spread awareness of the dangers of asbestos, and collected signatures demanding a nationwide ban of all uses of asbestos.

“While there is a lot of gray in the world, I also know that there is right and there is wrong. And corporations that are responsible for asbestos use making a profit off of people’s pain and lives is wrong.”
– Julie Gundlach

She has also participated in the annual Miles for Meso race, which is organized by mesothelioma law firm Simmons Hanly Conroy to raise money for mesothelioma research. Less than a year after a surgery that had her hospital-bound for a month, Julie ran — and finished — the 5K in St. Louis.

“Miles for Meso means that somebody has my back…and somebody is amplifying my voice against the use of asbestos and the industry of corporate greed.”
– Julie Gundlach

Julie feels particularly connected to Miles for Meso because she worked with Simmons Hanly Conroy to file a mesothelioma lawsuit against the manufacturers of the asbestos-containing products that made her sick.

Through this lawsuit, Julie was able to afford the expensive, life-saving treatments she received that have allowed her to keep fighting mesothelioma for nearly two decades, even as her insurance companies tried to deny her coverage.

One Step at a Time

Julie’s life continues to be marked by medical appointments and scans to ensure her cancer remains “stable” — the medically accurate term for Julie’s status. However, she is grateful that her life is so much more than her cancer as she prioritizes experiences that bring her joy and meaning.

Her advice to those who are newly diagnosed or love someone who has been is to just focus on taking one step at a time.

“Keep the faith and keep putting one foot in front of the other.”
– Julie Gundlach

If you or someone you love is fighting mesothelioma, remember you are not alone. Mesothelioma Hope has compiled inspiring stories like Julie’s in our Free Mesothelioma Survivors Guide.

Shipped overnight, our guide shares several mesothelioma survivors’ perspectives on treatment, mental health, and getting financial assistance to pay for their cancer care. Get your Free Survivors Guide now contact our team at (866) 608-8933 to learn about all the ways we can help you.

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Laura WrightWritten by:

Lead Editor

Laura Wright is a journalist and content strategist with more than 15 years of professional experience. She attended college at the University of Florida, graduating magna cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in journalism in 2008. Her writing has been featured in The Gainesville Sun and other regional publications throughout Florida.

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