When you meet Teresa Kao today you could never imagine her as a woman who at one time had been defeated by cancer — anxious, depressed and fearful. She is a joyful woman, filled with light, living in the moment and appreciating what every day brings. But when Teresa was diagnosed with breast cancer in December 2004, her life was turned upside down. Complicating her ability to cope with her diagnosis and treatment were the dramatic, unexpected deaths of both her mother and brother.
Teresa was born in China, grew up in Taiwan and came to the United States in 1971 to attend graduate school. She, her husband and their two children settled in Voorhees, NJ in 1987. Her parents who moved to the U.S. in 1982 moved to China in 2001, but her brother lived nearby in Cherry Hill. Teresa was happy with her life. She had a career in computer programming, enjoyed singing with her choir and went to the gym almost daily.
In December of 2004, Teresa went for her regular screening mammogram. The results showed a small suspicious mass in her breast. After a biopsy confirmed that the mass was cancerous, Teresa saw a local surgeon who recommended a lumpectomy. But before proceeding with the surgery, Teresa consulted with Generosa Grana, MD, Director of Cooper Cancer Institute and the Janet Knowles Breast Cancer Center. Dr. Grana advised Teresa to undergo chemotherapy before surgery.
Not wanting to waste time, Teresa started chemo in January 2005. Still in good spirits, worried but determined, Teresa was moving forward. Then the next blow hit — right after her first chemo treatment, Teresa received word that her mother had died in China.
“I didn’t even know she was sick until the day before she died,” says Teresa. “She kept her illness hidden from me. Whenever I called, someone would give me an excuse why my mother wasn’t available. It didn’t occur to me that she would be sick and unable or unwilling to talk to me about it. She finally called me the day before she died to tell me.”
Teresa’s brother and his wife helped Teresa and her husband during her chemotherapy — visiting, helping with errands, cooking meals, anything theyneeded. Suddenly in April, her brother became ill and within weeks he passed away just before Teresa’s last chemotherapy treatment.
Teresa continued treatment as planned with surgery followed by radiation therapy five days a week for seven weeks.
“I was a mess. Between chemotherapy, surgery, radiation, grief and the anxiety medications, I felt like I was in a haze,” says Teresa. “It was obvious to Dr. Grana that I wasn’t doing well. She told me that many people have more problems after treatment than during treatment and she recommended that I attend a Live, Lunch and Learn session after one of
Live, Lunch and Learn sessions are one of the many education and wellness programs held for cancer patients and their caregivers through The Dr. Diane Barton Complementary Medicine Program of Cooper Cancer Institute (CCI).
I was fortunate that the Program was there to help me when I really needed help and support,” says Teresa. “At the program, I learned not only from the instructors but also from the other survivors. Their courage and strength were inspirations for me. And that’s when things started to turn around for me.”
Teresa took part in many of the Complementary Medicine Program offerings, including gentle yoga, mindfulness meditation, art therapy, Qi Gong, therapeutic massage and music therapy. She also took advantage of the behavioral medicine counseling that was available at CCI.
“The Dr. Diane Barton Complementary Medicine Program and the Behavioral Medicine Program gave me the tools to help cope with my situation by helping me to be more aware of living in the moment and allowing me to grieve for my mother, brother and myself,” says Teresa.
“I’ve learned to live one day at a time and have accepted that change is a part of life.”
Teresa says she owes her life to her physicians, and her new perspective on life to the Dr. Diane Barton Complementary Medicine Program and the Behavioral Health Program at CCI.
Today Teresa is back singing with her choir, has joined a line dancing group, is an officer in her Chinese women’s organization and does some volunteer work. Her renewed joy in life and peace within herself can be seen in her smile.