Bourbonnais woman empowered by breast cancer
A day after losing her first handful of hair and undergoing her sixth round of chemotherapy, Candice Crews was out at a pumpkin patch chaperoning her 4-year-old son’s field trip.
Moments like that have helped the 33-year-old mother of four boys during her treatment of stage 3 breast cancer.
“I don’t want to miss my kids’ football games. I don’t want to miss field trips. I hate when I don’t feel well,” Crews told the Daily Journal on Wednesday while undergoing chemotherapy at the Riverside Cancer Institute in Bourbonnais. “No matter how I am feeling, I won’t miss them (activities). I am going to be there for my boys.”
Crews was diagnosed July 1 with breast cancer. Initially, she thought her bra wire caused a pimple near her breast. Seven months later, it swelled to the size of a knot.
She knew she had cancer when the doctors called and asked her to come in to go over her results. They told her to bring family members. She broke down and cried.
“I had a quick pity party,” she said. “I wanted to know why. I don’t smoke. I never used drugs. I try to live a wholesome, healthy life. I felt like it wasn’t fair. I later found out that my estranged father’s mother, my grandma whom I do not know, had breast cancer. We are the only two in my bloodline to have had it.”
Her next doctor’s appointment confirmed the news. Surrounded by her mother, sister and boyfriend, the doctors told her the cancer had spread from her right breast to the lymph nodes of her right armpit.
“It was a big family event,” Crews recalled. “They took it hard, but I had already dealt with it. I went a little numb.
“The last thing you want to think about is dying. The first thing I thought about was my four boys. I had to tell them. I knew I would be fine. I knew it wasn’t a death sentence. I wasn’t dying. Still, that thought of dying is in the back of your head.”
Setting the tone
Twenty days after having her right breast and 18 lymph nodes removed, Crews was delivering food and water bottles during Kankakee’s annual braid-a-thon at Pioneer Park.
Crews, a licensed cosmetologist, has co-coordinated the event for the past few years, braiding hair for area girls as they prepare for their first day of school.
While the pain kept her from braiding, she stayed involved with the event at the urging of her volunteers.
The braid-a-thon gave her a memory she wouldn’t forget. While supporting volunteers, Crews met SaVannah Rowe, a 3-year-old diagnosed with tumors on her brain and spine.
“That baby girl gave me so much strength,” said Crews, who was hemorrhaging the day after the event. “She was going through some very aggressive chemo. She was on restrictions, but they were able to bring her. She couldn’t walk. Her left side was weak.
“But when her mom brought her some (Mexican) elotes to eat, she refused to let her mom feed her. She was a ball of fire. She was determined to do everything herself. She was everything. It’s easy to have a pity party, but when you see a 3-year-old going through it, fighting, being strong and independent, you realize you can do it. She set the tone for my battle.”
Before she had cancer, Crews was used to the daily grind of styling hair to support her family. The unpredictability of the cosmetology profession made the dinner table just as unpredictable.
Since she started chemotherapy, however, Crews has started preparing meals more. She has altered her diet to minimize the effects of chemo. And, she has been enhancing her cooking skills. She most notably added sour cream, bacon and chives to her sons’ favorite dish, shepherd pie.
“I was that shop mom. You hit the money when it’s coming. So, we had a lot of free-for-all nights,” Crews said. “If you had pizza, you had pizza. If you had ice cream, at least you ate something.
“Now, I am at home and cooking more. I can appreciate the importance of sitting down and eating a good meal.”
Her treatment with cancer has brought her family closer. She has had more movie nights with her boyfriend and four sons. She still goes on field trips. Her 15-year-old son just got his driving permit. And she still goes to her sons’ football games, parking her minivan along the fence to watch.
Her sons also have found inspiration in their mother’s situation. They have picked up more chores around the house. And when one doesn’t feel up to a task, another tells them, “If mom can get her boob removed, you can carry groceries.”
“My boys have kept me going,” she said. “So has my faith. Those are all I need.”
Crews did not fear losing her hair when she started chemo. On Wednesday, just before her sixth week of chemo, she combed out the first handful of her curly locks.
“I put it on the dresser. I was meaning to bag it,” she said with a laugh. “I thought about just cutting it off so I could be in control of losing it. I could say I cut it off rather than waking up with it covering my pillow.”
However, her boyfriend has encouraged her to just let her hair take its course. Crews has embraced that, wearing a scarf over her head during Wednesday’s chemo session.
“I have been bald six times before,” she said with confidence. “I shaved my head after my divorce. My ex-husband always wanted me to have long hair. So, my hair seemed like it was his hair, not mine. When I shaved it off, it felt liberating.”
But as a cosmetologist, chemo has given Crews a different perspective on her job. She still cuts hair at a Kankakee studio when she feels well enough. But having cancer has sharpened her beauty movement.
“Women are insecure about their hair,” she said. “Being a licensed cosmetologist has allowed me to give them genuine advice on just being yourself and embracing your beauty. Your hair doesn’t define you. Sometimes, it’s best to just let it go.”
At the same time, chemo has made Crews more conscious of how much a cosmetologist can impact their customers. She has made wigs in the past, but now she is planning on making wigs for kids battling cancer.
“It’s a trend to wear hairpieces. So, I’ve been thinking about making wigs for kids. Maybe the first one I make could be for SaVannah.”
Finishing the fight
For 10 more Wednesdays, Crews will sit in the Riverside Cancer Institute wearing her gray sweatsuit that has “I am strong” embroidered across the top in pink, while an IV pumps chemo into her body.
“I have learned that I am stronger than I thought,” she said. “Life is mind over matter. Other people have it worse. SaVannah is 3 years old, and she is battling cancer. People in other countries are struggling. I wake up every morning, and I’m still alive.
“When I wake up, I say my motto, ‘I shall live and not die.’ If I feel sick, sad or depressed, I repeat that motto. I probably say it 50 times a day.”
And while the disease first seemed like a curse, enduring it has empowered her.
“I am young. I have breast cancer. That’s my reality,” she said. “But it’s not going to defeat me. It has been a blessing. It has made me realize so much about myself. It made me more grateful for life.”