It’s been a little over five years since Teresa Van Hoy beat breast cancer.
The San Antonio, Texas-based mother of two has since returned to teaching — she’s a history professor at St. Mary's University in San Antonio — and has undertaken the task of relaying her story of survival to as many of the more than 200,000 women who are diagnosed with breast cancer each year as she can.
She volunteers for the Susan G. Komen-sponsored Latinas for A Cure and spreads her message year-round, not just during the month of October, which is National Breast Cancer Awareness month. She makes a point of telling all women that breast cancer is not a disease that just takes away, it’s also one that gives back.
“The truth is, breast cancer works like a right of passage,” she said. “It’s a tremendous physical test. Throughout my experience, I was moving toward maturity, moving to wholeness, moving toward strength and discovering new strengths I didn’t even know I had.”
In February 2002, Van Hoy was diagnosed with breast cancer. “I had the rare instance of having two tumors, one of which was about three inches from my chest wall,” she said.
Van Hoy spent about eight months in treatment, which first included a double mastectomy, followed by radiation and chemotherapy.
“I chose not to reconstruct because I wanted to start chemo right away, because my case was so critical,” she said. “Reconstruction can also be dangerous. I didn’t want to die during reconstruction and I always figured I could go back and get reconstructed. But by the time, I finished treatments, everyone was so used to me and I was delighted at not having to wear a bra — there was something nubile about my body — I decided not to reconstruct.”
Still, Van Hoy’s choice wasn’t an easy one. She acknowledged that at first it was difficult to be a woman without breasts.
“In Texas, breasts and hair are big, and to suddenly find yourself from one week to the next, first with no breasts, then with no hair, it’s a big blow to your self-esteem,” she said. “But I was lucky that my husband and I had been together for 22 years. I wasn’t in some precarious relationship and I already had kids. I don’t know if I could have been that brave otherwise.”
Today, Van Hoy is able to bike and exercise in just a sports bra. She has no scars from surgery because the radiation wiped them all away.
“My sons are comfortable with it, which was something I was concerned about, and I think that once you claim who you are, you realize that you’re beautiful and wonderful and just happy to be alive,” she said. “It was like my body had gone back to being that of a little girl.”
Van Hoy took some time off to recover, but was back working before she knew it.
“I went on leave from my job teaching in Houston through the spring and summer so I could go through treatments and get my strength back,” she said. “But I went back to work when I was still having daily radiation treatments. I lived in San Antonio and was commuting by airplane to (the University of Houston) every day."
Van Hoy had also volunteered to teach at a Texas prison that fall semester. That forced her to drive an hour outside Houston to the prison daily.
“It was a grueling regimen,” she said. “But it was empowering to know that I could still offer as big of a contribution as ever. That’s just the beginning of what cancer gave to me."
But Van Hoy still found herself needing some down time, and soon found herself visiting a local playground where she would sit and watch children play.
“When you get something like breast cancer, a warning system goes off letting you know something is wrong,” she said. “I first focused on the cancer. I had two young boys whose neighbor had just died of cancer, and now I had to explain that I had cancer. But I also knew that I wouldn’t get anywhere treating just the symptoms. I had to see if I could get to the root of this thing and figure out what in me was not whole.”
Watching children play was the key to what was missing in Van Hoy’s life. The innocence and the playfulness of the children reminded her that there was something more to life than deadlines, committees and reports.
“I didn’t jump, I didn’t bend full over to exam something closely,” she said. “I had lost my range of motion. I was just like an old person, so stiff. I knew I must reclaim what gives kids joy so that it might also give me joy. Elemental things, like running water. I knew I could take my shoes off and walk in the grass. And then I slowly reclaimed other things and moved to what mattered most, like spending time with my girlfriends, from the bottom of the list to the top of the list.”
Van Hoy cried the day she finished her treatment for breast cancer.
“The nurses had taken such good care of me,” she said. “I didn’t know how I was going to take care of myself.”
But she found a way, returning to her old life, but also reclaiming a new life, taking a new job closer to home and putting family, friends, nature and the fundamental things of life first.
“After breast cancer, you can fully be the woman you once were, but I invite (people) to not stop there,” she said. “The cancer offers the opportunity to be so much more. You can learn to love the person you are. Even with flaws, you can find wabi, that is, the Japanese word for aesthetic, which means that the flaw or the imperfection is what makes something beautiful.”