Candice Stinnett told the whole neighborhood about her victory over cancer. She made a huge banner – “Celebrating two years cancer-free” – slapped it on an ice cream truck, and drove the back streets of Keller last year handing out free frozen treats alongside her son Jonathan. Wedged between coolers in the rented truck, mother and son doled out Drumsticks, Fudge Bars and Bomb Pops, cheesy music and all. Friends and strangers alike turned out to congratulate her.
The free-ice-cream stunt is typical of Candice’s seize-the-day attitude, but a story with precipitous ups and downs lies behind the cheery banner. Candice, who lives with her husband and son in Keller, has fought three battles with Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a blood cancer. She has endured dozens of chemotherapy treatments and lost her hair three times. She received two stem-cell transplants – her own cells the first time, a stranger’s the second – and suffered through lengthy recoveries that forced her to quit her beloved job as an emergency dispatcher. And she is 27.
“I have a motto,” Candice says. “Get busy living. And that is exactly what I do. There have been so many times when I’ve said, ‘OK, we’ll do that later.’ But there is no later here anymore. We just do it, because I was faced with the situation that there might not be a later.”
In October she will be three years cancer-free – and will commemorate the occasion by running her second marathon, this time in San Francisco as a member of The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Team in Training. Candice speaks publicly about her struggles with cancer and is less than a year away from graduating with a degree in broadcast communication from UTA. “It was like that cloud over my future got lifted away,” Candice says at her kitchen table on a recent morning, while 9-year-old son Jonathan eavesdrops in the living room. “But I still don’t put things off till later.”
It was just six years ago that Candice noticed a lump on the left side of her neck. “It stuck out just a little bit,” she says. “You know how you notice the tiniest things about yourself?” An initial visit to a doctor brought assurances that it didn’t appear to be anything serious. But not long afterward, her neck and jawline began to swell. She’d soon learn the source of swelling: her lymph nodes.
X-rays revealed something else. “I remember sitting in the exam room,” Candice says, “and I heard the doctors talking about lymphoma and chemotherapy. I was like, what? Surely that isn’t me.” As she was leaving, clinic personnel thrust some papers in her hand about lymphoma. She called John, now her husband. “Hey, they said that I might have lymphoma,” she told him.
“What’s that?” he answered. He immediately did a search. “Candice, that’s cancer.”
Still it didn’t register. She was 21, life and health presumed. “Only old people who are on their deathbed get cancer,” she thought. “Young people like me don’t get cancer.”
Today Candice’s diagnoses and treatments are captured in music and photos on her website, candicestinnett.com. There are medical images of her upper body, first with luridly colored blotches that represent cancer, next with a clean black-and-white scan. There are numerous photos of bald heads, her son snuggling beside her in a hospital bed, her husband smiling to keep her strong. You see Candice training for her first marathon in Paris and mugging with fellow Team in Training members. The music and photos collapse a long narrative, and there is a deeper story behind each one.
Hearing, for example, that the cancer was back – round three. It was 2010; the doctors had exhausted their options. Candice needed another stem-cell transplant to replenish her body’s supply of healthy blood-forming cells, but no match existed in the international donor registry. Though Candice has three sisters – siblings are usually the best donor prospects – none was a match. She left the doctor that day facing defeat for the first time. “The hope that I had was very minimal,” she says. “When I wasn’t praying myself to sleep, I was literally planning my funeral online.”
One thing she had always hung onto – being around to see her son get married – was slipping away. And for three weeks Candice heard nothing to encourage her. “During those weeks,” she recalls, “it was kind of like there was a cloud blocking my future. Not knowing is the scariest part.”
Candice admits she grappled with dark thoughts, but she discerned a pattern. “Whenever I started thinking something negative, those thoughts multiplied. It would just snowball,” she says. “I realized that the mind is such a powerful thing.” She would consciously push away those feelings, leaning on her husband’s steady presence. “He was a huge, huge help,” she says. “We are both believers, and he would give me the strength that I needed to stay positive.”
Completely unseen to Candice and her doctors, an incredible series of events was unfolding. A woman stood up in a California church one day and told how she’d donated stem cells and saved a life. A thirtysomething man – a husband and father named Jared – was listening. Immediately afterward, he stepped into the church foyer and offered a swab from his cheek, the first step to becoming a donor. Within days, his tissue type data was entered into the donor registry.
Suddenly in Texas Candice got the news that a man who’d just entered the registry was a 90 percent match for her stem cells. (Fascinating point of genetics: Candice is half-Native American. She would find out more than a year later that the donor was half-Japanese – an intriguing bit of information, considering the widely accepted theory that Native Americans originally came from Asia.) And so began the final, fiercest round of her battle with cancer, with the most debilitating series of chemo treatments in preparation for the stem-cell transplant, followed by a long period of recuperation.
Throughout it all, Candice and her husband were open with their son. She says it helped her as much as him; they told Jonathan everything he wanted to know, bringing it down to his level. “He had peace with it,” Candice says. “Even when I had doubt, he was there to reassure me. He was singing to me, ‘Just dance – it’s gonna be OK.’ When I was sick in my bedroom, he would come and lie with me and sing that song.”
These days Candice’s life is a whirl of school, kid activities and training for the upcoming marathon – where she will run alongside her stem-cell donor. But she doesn’t put off stopping for a friend. Or her husband and son. Cancer, she acknowledges, reinvented her life – for the better.
“I wish that I never had to experience it,” she says. “But it has made me appreciate and respect life. I have a whole new perspective.”
Published October 2013