Turning Tragedy to Triumph

By Rebecca Esparza
'99 BA, '04 MBA

When I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer at age 30, I felt as though my whole world had fallen apart. I could never have imagined that one day I would not only meet my personal hero and fellow cancer survivor Lance Armstrong, but receive a prestigious award from him, too.


Alumna and two-time cancer survivor Rebecca Esparza met Lance Armstrong when he presented the LIVESTRONG Challenge Award to her for her “embodiment of the courage, perseverance and hope that is within all cancer survivors.”

On Thanksgiving Day in 2001, what was supposed to be a routine surgery to remove uterine fibroid tumors turned into a six-hour operation to save my life.

My anxiety during this turbulent time was ratcheted up

by the fact I had no health insurance. To make matters worse, I lost the ability to have children because my surgeon chose to save my life rather than preserve my fertility.

My future felt hopeless.

Seeking solace at the local library, I found Armstrong’s book: “It’s Not About The Bike.” His story was an inspiring miracle for me when I needed one the most. Armstrong was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 1996, and the cancer had spread to his lungs, abdomen and brain. Despite the odds, he not only returned to professional biking, he went on to win several races, including the world-famous Tour de France.

I was in awe of his courage, determination and strength.

Most impressive to me, though, was that during his treatment for cancer, he formed the Lance Armstrong Foundation (LAF) to help other cancer patients make it through their own cancer journey.

The more I learned about the foundation, the more I was hooked. Armstrong’s moto declares boldly: “Unity is strength. Knowledge is power. Attitude is everything.” For me, the now ubiquitous yellow LIVESTRONG wristband has come to symbolize forging on despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles. I wear it as a constant reminder that nothing is impossible.


Because chemotherapy made her hair fall out, Esparza decided to shave her head. Both her father (left) and her fiancé, Robert, shaved their heads, too

Thanks to him, I realized others could benefit from my experience with cancer. I was determined to make a difference in the cancer community, so I began volunteering with LAF. In 2007, I was chosen as a LIVESTRONG Day delegate and flown to Washington, D.C., for meetings with elected officials to encourage increased funding for cancer research.

Later that year, my fiancé, Robert, and I formed the LIVESTRONG Army-Corpus Christi, a group from our area who care about cancer issues on a grassroots level. We held our first event last year, just two weeks after I learned about my second cancer diagnosis, this time involving my thyroid.

After LIVESTRONG Day, representatives from the foundation asked if I could once again represent my congressional district in Washington, D.C. I agreed, despite having undergone surgery to remove my cancerous thyroid and 50 lymph nodes less than a week before.

A few weeks before the LIVESTRONG Challenge in Austin, I learned I had been selected to receive the LIVESTRONG Challenge Award. I couldn’t have been more shocked and humbled. According to the foundation, the award is presented to someone who is the “embodiment of the courage, perseverance and hope that is within all cancer survivors.”

Probably the most satisfying part of receiving the award was meeting the presenter: Lance Armstrong himself, the inspiration behind my cancer activism.

When people try to tell me my life focuses too much

on cancer, I just smile and say that cancer issues will always be a part of my life because it has shaped who I am today. There is no way I can walk away from helping others through their fight against cancer, whether as a patient or caregiver.

Cancer may have taken an irreversible toll on my body, but it will never, ever break my spirit. And with the grace of God, I plan on making cancer history, on many fronts, for years to come.

To find out more about the Lance Armstrong Foundation, visit