The Song of a Survivor

Bexar County retiree Ruthelda Alvarado retired early to take care of her ailing father, and recently beat her own cancer diagnosis, too. Now recovered, Ruth teaches choir at St. John Bosco Elementary School, where students know her as “Grandma Ruthy.”

Story and photos by John Martin

When TCDRS retiree Ruthelda Alvarado, 57, steps out of her choir classroom at St. John Bosco Elementary, she is greeted by gleeful shouts of “Grandma Ruthy!” from her two grandchildren and their classmates. It’s a simple moment, but it’s a moment she had to earn.

In 2011, Ruth retired early from Bexar County after 22 years of working as an office assistant for the San Antonio Public Works Department.

At the time, her father was fighting prostate cancer and dementia, and since her mother had passed away when Ruth was 28, she wanted to do what she could to take care of him in his final years.

Pushing Through

This was just the beginning of Ruth’s journey in retirement. In 2021, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and a flurry of emotions hit her all at once. “There are so many things that come into play. What am I going to do? How am I going to pay for this? Hell, how am I going to survive? I think that’s part of the fear that you experience,” Ruth says.

Her TCDRS benefit payments covered her rent, insurance and phone and car payments, but medical bills started to rack up.

Day by day, Ruth figured out what surviving cancer meant. “I was raised by strong Latina women,” she says. “I’ve always felt I needed to push through.” That overcomer mentality got her through surgeries on her back and gallbladder, as well as a C-section, but radiation and chemo were different beasts.

“The hardest thing for me to do was letting people help me,” says Ruth. “I just wanted my life back.” Radiation and chemotherapy took a toll on her both mentally and physically.

She likened the experience to being alone in a dark room. “There are two types of people that we come across,” Ruth says. “There are friends who will see you going through something difficult and turn on all the lights. They’ll call you a warrior and tell you that you’ve got this or how strong you are.”

“Then, there are friends who join you in the dark,” she says. “They sit with you and let you go through what you’re going through.”

Sharing her experience with her family and friends got her through the hard times. As her treatment progressed, she made a choice to draw the curtains and let light into that dark room. “I made a decision. I’m going to live,” says Ruth.

After a year and a half of treatment, the removal of 24 lymph nodes, four rounds of chemotherapy and 28 rounds of radiation, she reached the summit. On Oct. 13, 2021, Ruth posted a Facebook video of herself ringing a bell — a tradition among cancer survivors signifying the end of her treatment.

Ruth ringing the bell to signify the end of her cancer treatment.
Photo courtesy of Ruthelda Alvarado

A New Melody

As soon as Ruth felt strong enough, she began looking for part-time jobs and found herself teaching choir at her grandchildren’s school in San Antonio. Ruth was a music education major when she was in college, and rekindling that passion helped her find a new melody in retirement.

“Being a teacher is a lot more than just teaching,” Ruth says. “You are a counselor, a referee and so much more. I love it.”

The St. John Bosco Elementary choir has seen two Superior ratings in competition since Ruth’s arrival to the program. Her classroom this year is far from the dark room of her treatment, and “Grandma Ruthy” spends her days playing her piano with children singing around her.

Ruth’s family is growing, too. While her parents are no longer with her, Ruth feels closer to them by watching her own three children build families of their own.

“I can honestly say that for the first time in my life, I’m truly happy,” she adds. “I am alive!”


Video Library

Rather watch than read? Check out our
informational videos.
Explore Now