If you happened to strike up a conversation with Pamela Calvaruzo at a team roping, you might figure she has cancer because she’s lost all of her hair. However, her positive attitude and fighting spirit would belie the fact that it is stage four. And, that this is the second battle she has fought against this terrible disease.
Not Your Typical Team Roper
Pam didn’t get her first horse until she was a sophomore in high school, when her father was able to obtain some land her grandparents had homesteaded.
“I don’t think we lived there a month before my dad bought us a horse. She was a little bay Morgan we called Sugar. That was Dad’s dream—to live in the country and own a horse,” Pam says.
When she became an adult, Pam knew she wanted to continue having horses, but it wasn’t until her father passed away that she realized life is too short to own just a couple horses.
Inspired by her fond childhood memories of Sugar, Pam raised Morgan horses in the 1990s. She discovered she had a passion and talent for equine reproduction and raised several world champions including one of the breed’s current leading sires, WC Stony Hollow Ice Man, who stands in Florida.
“When the market crashed in the early 2000s, the Morgan breed really took a hit because they are more of a luxury horse and not a working horse,” she says. “When that happened, I switched to raising Quarter Horses that were bred for ranch work and roping. I bought several mares and a stallion from the Haythorn Ranch in Nebraska. Babies, regardless of breed, have really always had my heart.”
Those Haythorn Quarter Horses are what started leading Pam’s path toward team roping, but it wasn’t until she married her husband, Joe, in 2010 that her focus switched from raising horses to riding them.
“Twenty-five years ago, my dream was to show a world champion Morgan horse I had raised. Never in a million years did I dream I would be team roping!” she says.
Her New Passion
After marrying Joe, an avid team roper, Pam decided to focus on improving her riding, thinking eventually she might decide to start roping. Every time Joe would go practice, Pam would go along with him and practice, just tracking the score steers out of the pen. She had just built up enough confidence to track a steer with a rope in her hand when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Family is Who You Make It
In July 2011, Pam began going through a grueling six-month treatment period that included chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery. Despite losing her signature blonde hair, Pam says she never lost her courage, thanks to a small group of Northeast Kansas team ropers whom she calls her “team roping family.”
“If it hadn’t been for Joe and our team roping family, I never would have found the strength to take on cancer so fiercely. And I needed every ounce of fight to beat that first round of cancer,” she says.
Pam underwent chemo treatments on Tuesdays, and, as long as the weather permitted, someone from her team roping family would invite her and Joe over to practice roping that evening.
“We would haul tail home from chemo so I could go practice tracking steers Tuesday nights because, by Wednesday morning, the chemo would make me so weak I couldn’t get out of bed,” she says. “Those nights in the practice pen saved me. And I will never be able to thank everyone who made them happen enough.”
Her fight paid off and Pam was able to hear the words everyone fighting the disease longs to hear: “You are cancer free.” Fully realizing how miraculous life is, Pam was resolute in how she wanted to spend the rest of her days.
“After my first battle with cancer, I became very sure of what I wanted in life. I wanted to spend as much time as possible with Joe, my team roping family, and my horses. Team roping was all-encompassing of those three things.”
In 2015, Pam finally accomplished her goal of being able to rope a live steer.
“The first time I caught a steer and got to go left, I was ecstatic. I felt like a homecoming queen.”
Cancer Strikes Again
In February 2017, at her five-year mammogram, Pam was told she had breast cancer again. This time, it was stage four.
“When you are diagnosed the second time, you are smart enough to know that you might not be cured again,” Pam says, “but, you can’t let yourself wake up every morning thinking about dying. I do have cancer, but I choose to focus on my life with Joe, my animals, and my friends. If you dwell on having cancer, your body loses sight of the reasons it is fighting to live.”
Despite going through chemo again, Pam is still roping. In August 2017, she accomplished one of her biggest goals since she started her team roping journey: purchasing her United States Team Roping Championships (USTRC) membership and competing at one of its sanctioned events.
Thanks to the help of some neighbors who are always willing to watch over their place so they can travel to ropings, Pam, Joe, and part of their team roping family headed to Enid, Oklahoma, in August to compete at the USTRC’s Chisholm Trail Classic. Pam entered the number 8 roping, heading for Joe, and when the couple were clean on their first steer, there was not a dry eye in the building and everyone was on their feet cheering for Pam.
“I was just so excited to catch my first steer at my first US roping, I really didn’t notice the crowd until a complete stranger rode up to me and told me about the standing ovation we received and said, ‘You have to keep going because you have a whole arena full of people who are cheering and praying for you.’ I mean it is obvious I have cancer because my hair is gone, but the way complete strangers went out of their way to celebrate with me—that was very special,” she says.
After Joe and Pam were done roping and went back to their trailer, a roper whom they had never met sought them out to pray with them.
“It would be so easy to say ‘woe is me’ in this situation, but how can you say that when there are so many positive people and positive events surrounding you? The team roping world is just wonderful,” she says.
On to the Next Goal
Joe and Pam plan to spend the month of February in “team roper’s paradise” around Scottsdale, Arizona. Pam recognizes many of the ropers who spend their time in Arizona for the winter have a lot more roping experience than she does, but that just fuels her fire to improve.
“Even though I have only been doing this a short while, I am devoted to getting better,” Pam says. “I hope to be a contender in the lower numbered ropings by February, and I hope when I ride up to the arena, heelers want to enter with me because they know I am going to catch most of my steers.”
In the sport of rodeo, cowboys and rodeo producers have coined the term “Tough Enough to Wear Pink” and encourage contestants to wear pink to help raise awareness and money for breast cancer research. For Pam’s team roping family, the term is rephrased to “Tough Enough to Be Pam.”
top photo by Jane Gunn