SAN ANTONIO – In the spring of 2023, longtime UTSA Athletics supporter Patty Espenhover received a shocking health diagnosis. Doctors detected an aggressive, stage-four breast cancer that had metastasized to her bone marrow. But while she’s currently facing the toughest battle of her life, Patty has become a shining inspiration to all those around her.
Going for medical checkups every six months for years due to an ongoing struggle with anemia, Patty was confident she was being diligent about her health. She anticipated early detection would occur with any illness she might face in the future. That turned out not to be the case.
“I went for a checkup in October of 2022 and had a mammogram and blood work and everything was fine,” she said. “Then I went six months later and my blood work was terrible. They thought I had blood cancer. They started running tests and did a bone marrow biopsy. You go for your check-ups and do everything you can and then you get something aggressive that you have no control over.”
Patty and her husband, Greg, were among the very first season ticket holders for UTSA football during its inaugural season of 2011. Quickly they became supporters of all of the Roadrunners’ sports.
“We’ve been really rabid fans for 13 years,” Greg said. “I used to come to a basketball game here or there, but when football started, we became football season ticket-holders. Then we started getting involved with basketball, men’s and women’s. You get to meet all these people. A big part of our life is being involved here. I don’t want that to change. Patty doesn’t want that to change. The way we do it is changing, but we’ll just have to figure that out as we go.”
Multiple times per week, the Espenhovers make the 60-mile drive from their home in Kerrville, Texas, to the UTSA campus on San Antonio’s northwest side to catch a sporting event and spend time with the friends they have made over the years.
“We’ve just become season-ticket holders to everything now,” Patty said. “We try to do as much of it as we can. We’ve become so close to the coaches and everyone here that we really enjoy that. UTSA is part of our family.”
Attending UTSA sporting events despite battling cancer has provided Patty with a sense of normalcy and a community that embraces her.
“My doctor said, ‘I want you to enjoy life through this,’” she said. “As often as I can, I come to the games because I love it. It energizes me. I love being around all the people that I know and just seeing everyone. It makes you feel like there’s a little bit of normal in this crazy world that you’re living in.”
Sunday’s UTSA women’s basketball contest against UAB will have special meaning for the Espenhovers, as it marks the team’s Cancer Awareness game. Donations will be collected to support the Kay Yow Cancer Fund, named after the longtime NC State women’s basketball coach who passed away in 2009 after a 22-year battle with breast cancer.
“It’s huge,” Patty said. “There are new treatments that come out all the time. When I’ve gone in for treatment, I think about people who have cancer but maybe don’t have insurance. What a struggle to figure out how you’re going to pay for treatment. Any money that is raised for cancer, whether it’s for research or just helping people that need to get treatment, it’s hugely appreciated.”
Patty and Greg Espenhover were initially in disbelief over her diagnosis. They traveled to the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston for a second opinion and to learn how Patty could begin to battle her disease.
“You don’t believe it,” Greg said. “She’s had her share of health problems and this just seemed to be something similar. And then, all of a sudden, it’s not. It’s scary and not the news you want to hear. We were on the breast cancer ward of MD Anderson and I sat there for five hours while she was getting scans. I’ll bet there was 200 people who went through that one area of MD Anderson during that time. It’s mind-boggling.”
Almost from the start, Patty has attacked cancer with a positive attitude. Encouragement from one of her sons coupled with a sign she received during her first blood transfusion convinced Patty that her approach would make all the difference.
“I told my oldest son and he said, ‘Mom, everyone I’ve been around who’s had cancer, if they have a positive attitude, they get through it.’” Patty said. “Then I had to go to a blood transfusion a few days later and I asked what my blood type is. I didn’t know. And they said, ‘B positive.’ I thought, okay, that’s all a sign that I need to be positive.
“You can cry about it, you can be angry about it, but it doesn’t change the fact that you have cancer. If you can be positive, it helps everyone. I know God has a plan and I know there is a reason this happened. I just have to wait for it and see how it all falls out.”
Patty’s optimism has been inspiring to her husband, Greg, who has been with her every step of the way.
“Her positive attitude is what uplifts me,” Greg said. “You have to take it day-by-day. You can’t take today’s good day and say, ‘tomorrow’s going to be a good day.’ It may not be. But the next day might. So you just take one day at a time and stay positive. It’s hard being somebody that fixes things all the time and I can’t fix this. I have to be a little bit more patient.”
Whether it’s her fellow cancer patients or the medical professionals that provide treatment, Patty has become a source of encouragement for them all.
“I go for treatment every week,” Patty said. “It’s amazing how many people there are struggling. We’ve become friends because we’re all going through this together. I go to Fredericksburg for my oncology treatment. The nurses and doctors, nurse practitioners and everyone in the office is amazing. The hospital in Fredericksburg is just phenomenal. I have to get a lot of blood transfusions and go for a lot of scans. You get to where you know everyone. I try and take them cookies and things like that to let them know I appreciate all they do for me. I know that’s a hard job taking care of cancer patients every day.”
Community is central to the battle with cancer, as both Patty and Greg have experienced over the past year. Those closest to them have kept them going.
“Lean on your family and friends because you need them,” Patty said. “It’s a struggle. You do have good days and bad days. There are days I want to cry because I feel so bad and that’s when you lean on your family and your friends. You need a big support system, that’s the biggest thing I can say. That helps tremendously.”
In recent months, even those who have simply heard of Patty’s story have reached out to provide a kind word or a prayer.
“People walk up to me in the small town that we live in and I may not know them, but they have heard about Patty and they are offering their prayers,” Greg said. “You really realize the outreach of family and friends is unbelievable. She has people we don’t even know praying for her and putting her on prayer lists at church. It’s powerful.”
More than anything, Patty and Greg are doing their best to maintain a sense of normalcy and to do the things they have always enjoyed doing. They have plans for a trip to Rome to see Patty’s son and would like to resume traveling to road games to support the Roadrunners. While they may not be able to travel in the near future, they view it as simply a postponing of their plans. A to-do list, if you will, for the time after Patty has won her battle with cancer.
“To me, cancer is not the end of my story; it’s only a chapter,” Patty said. “I think people need to keep that in mind as they’re battling cancer. I know everybody has different cancers they’re fighting but try not to think of that as that death sentence that it used to be. Because there’s so many amazing treatments that are out there nowadays.
“It’s not going to take me down. Cancer may be tough, but I’m tougher. It’s just a chapter in my life that I have to get through. And hopefully it’s a short chapter.”