How do you honor the memory of someone who you only met once, and do it in a way that will engage strangers? You can’t simply rattle off a bunch of positive words, like “she was great” or “she was the best” and assert that you’ve done the job. You need to paint a picture. You have to get their story, talk with their friends and loved ones, get a sense of how they lived, who they touched and what they’ve left behind. That was my challenge for this tribute to Candace Ann Syres (October 22, 1976 — April 1, 2022), referred to Legacy of Hope in 2019 while she was fighting her third major cancer in as many decades. You read that correctly, three cancers, all aggressive variants—Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, breast cancer, and metastatic kidney cancer. She beat the first two and, eventually, succumbed to the latter. Mere mortals would have to muster the fight of a lifetime to confront and defeat even one of these illnesses. We’re talking about a woman with a legendary fighting spirit that not only helped her bounce back from cancer, but helped her defeat COVID, pneumonia, heart failure, even a pulmonary embolism, and all of this while exhibiting compassion and concern for others, even in the thick of her own life and death battles. It’s no wonder that those with whom I spoke about Candace shared the refrain “If you knew her, you loved her.” Hers is a tale worth telling.
Mike Rowe shares; “I knew she was exceptional before I even met her…of the nearly ten thousand patient referrals Legacy of Hope has received since its inception, Candace is the only one who was referred by her oncology social worker and her oncologist, both of whom provided additional (but not required) robust supplemental write-ups to ensure she would receive necessary support.” Candace’s poor prognosis and incredible story led Rowe to meet with her soon after she was referred; after sharing her story with the board it was decided that Legacy of Hope would take care of all her bills for three months, so she could spend that time with her family. “I brought her to Jefferson under the guise of meeting with her social worker. We had her entire oncology care team of about twenty people there to surprise her with the news about her bills being handled. She was grateful, and humble.” But she wasn’t out of the fight yet. In miraculous fashion, so typical of Candace, she beat the odds for another three years, and lived a total of seven years beyond her initial bleak prognosis in 2015.
Incredibly, her fight with kidney cancer was just one of Candace’s battles, which first began when she was diagnosed with an aggressive strain of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma when she was only 17 (and pregnant with her first child). The doctors delayed treatment to allow her baby time to develop. When he was sufficiently developed they induced labor four weeks early so that they could proceed with the only treatment for Hodgkin’s at that time—high-dose radiation. Young Candace beat Hodgkin’s, and also became mother to a perfectly healthy son, Jahmai. As sweet as her victory was, it was tempered by news that the heavy doses of radiation she’d received to her chest and neck put her at high risk for developing breast cancer in the future.
Ten years later, at age 27, with three children ages 10, 4 and 1, Candace noticed a lump while breastfeeding her youngest daughter, Kalisah. She got it checked out and met with her doctor, who asked her “Are you ready to fight again?” Her biopsy had come back positive for Stage III B triple negative breast cancer, which is more difficult to treat because it lacks receptors for hormonal therapies that could be utilized to fight it. The cancer had already spread to the lymph nodes. She underwent bilateral mastectomy, breast reconstruction and lymph node dissection, and endured 18 grueling months of chemotherapy. She beats breast cancer.
While Candace had been fighting (and beating cancer) since she was 17, she was also raising her children, mostly as a single mother. This underscores an often overlooked reality about cancer—it affects the entire family. Fortunately Candace wasn’t the only one in the fight and had a solid support system in her family. Her mother, Mary, was by her side for every treatment. She offers the following advice to parents with a terminally sick child, “Just be there. You need to be there with your ill loved ones. Sometimes no words need to be spoken. Sometimes it’s just the comfort of you being there next to them.”
Candace’s children couldn’t quite grasp the immensity of their mother’s circumstances when they were little. Sadly, they were given additional chances to do so as they grew older. Daughter Kalisah, now 20 years old, now appreciates that “mom refused to be defined by her sickness.”
After beating breast cancer, Candace and her family thought she was free and clear—ready to get on with living. In addition to raising her children as a single parent while battling lymphoma and then breast cancer, she also put herself through college, earning her bachelor’s of social work from LaSalle University, and a Masters of Public Health degree from Drexel in 2015. She was excited to start work in her field of training at Temple University in quality and compliance. That same year she would put on the gloves and enter the ring yet again.
From the jump working on this tribute, I realized that you can’t talk about Candace without mentioning her sister, Kimberly. They were nearly inseparable, sometimes saying they “shared one heart.“ “Candace and I were a year apart and we grew up tight, like twins. My mom would sometimes dress us alike. My mom said, I taught Candace how to climb the stairs. And as we grew and matured into young adults, we stayed very close. And we shared our lives together. We went to dance lessons together, music lessons together.” In retrospect, Kimberly believes that the treatment that saved Can’s life when she was 17 years old ultimately ended up taking it.
Across distances and time zones their closeness never waned, even throughout Candace’s painful ordeals. No matter where they were, Kim and Candace stayed connected via texts, calls and emails, which allowed them to stay involved in each other’s lives. “Candace made a point to keep me involved, like I was right there with the family. In every major milestone in her or her children’s lives, she’d send a text. Kim recounts when she received a foreboding text from Candace in 2015: “I have a problem, call me back right away.”
Kim learned that Candace had been passing blood in her urine. Tests revealed yet another cancer, her third. She was 38; the news was mentally and emotionally devastating because she’d given her all ten years earlier, and thought she could get on with her life, and now she’d have to fight again. She had surgery—a radical removal of her kidney, ureter, and part of her bladder—after which the surgeon told Kimberly that her sister’s prognosis was “very poor, less than one year.”
After recovering from that surgery, Candace was looking for a way to get back into shape, and she discovered ,Philadelphia Flying Phoenix – Against the Wind, a dragon boat team with 40 members, all breast cancer survivors. Dragon boat teammate and close friend, Jean Ettinger, recalls, “She showed up at practice, and I don’t know what it was, but we immediately loved each other. She was like another daughter to me. And I think she looked at me a lot like another mom.” The dragon boat team accepted and embraced Candace; she raced with them and helped them win gold and silver medals in competitions. Says Ettinger of Against the Wind, “We’re a floating support system, it’s a special kind of support group because nobody dwells. We’re past that. We’re surviving beautifully and we’re loving life and every day is a gift for all of us. It’s amazing how Candace lives on with our team—we always dedicate a race to her when we’re at a regatta. Her name comes up so often, because she was a special, special woman. We loved her and I loved her. She gave us what she could, and we gave her what we could. As she got sicker and sicker, we became more attentive to her.” Reflecting on the dragon boat team, Kimberly adds “Candace joined a team, but gained a second family.”
Some common themes about Candace surfaced in every conversation I had with her friends and family. Topping that list would be her consistent need to do for others. Brooke Worster, Candace’s palliative care oncologist at Jefferson’s Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center, offers her perspective: “I think that one of the reasons that everybody loved her was because she had been through so much, and she always helped others. She showed up for people when they needed it. No matter how bad she felt or how frustrated she got with everything, she’d be the one that would ask someone getting on the elevator, ‘Are you okay? Do you need any help?’ She would check in with people in the waiting room if they looked like they were upset or not feeling well. She would ask me and my team all the time ‘Are you okay? How are you?’ She realized that she was a part of something bigger, like ‘there is a reason that I am going through all of this and I’m not gonna be angry about it. I’m gonna try to find the silver lining.’ And she did, even through all the pain, the ups and downs, the side effects of her chemo and medications, she found ways to help people.”
Candace’s mom, Mary, echoes that theme “It was very difficult for her but she never stopped, even when she went out on disability, she found a job as a mastectomy bra fitter for women who’d had breast cancer, for the prosthetics. She would do that part-time when she would feel up to it; she provided self-defense lessons for women who were domestic abuse victims. Her attitude was contagious. With all she was going through, she took advantage of whatever opportunities she could to be doing something positive.” Oldest son Jahmai adds “If we were having a bad moment, she would always find a way to make everybody laugh. It was wild to see how somebody that was going through so much for so long had the ability to do that. All of my friends growing up all looked at me like, man, ‘I wish my mom was like yours.’ She accepted all my friends as if they were her own kids.”
Kim adds “Candace had a strong desire to help people. She’d been a victim of domestic violence; so she started a group called Girl With a Gun, she was a certified pistol qualifications and range safety officer; and started teaching women gun safety at the range. She also taught self defense to young women, victims of domestic violence. Another way she gave back was to become a certified post-mastectomy bra fitter, working part time. She did this, worked at the range, and with Girl with a Gun until she left for Egypt.”
Another common theme about Candace, especially with each of her children, was that things could always be worse; no matter how bad you have it, there’s someone out there who would happily trade places with you. Jahmai elaborates “Witnessing what she went through put me in a space where I don’t really complain much at all. ‘Cause whatever you’re going through, it could be a lot worse. I’ve personally seen how bad it can get. Losing mom put me into big brother 2.0 mode. Everything my mom did for me, I gotta make sure I do for them. I gotta teach them about credit and teach them about money management and investing. Mom taught me since I was in high school about budgeting. So I just kind of have to make sure that I pass those skills on to them. I feel obligated now to make sure that they succeed as young adults.“
Daughter Kalisah shares that “We saw our mother sick so much of the time; so she gave us real raw advice about life and how to live without her, how to move on without her. And I think she helped us be more prepared [for losing a parent] than the average teen or 20 year old.
I remember her going into [kidney cancer] surgery. We were all there, getting up and it was just such a relief because we were just like, oh my gosh. She went through surgery and she doesn’t have cancer and anymore she’s cancer free. One year she’s cancer free and we’re living and we’re not worried because the medicine’s working. And then two years later we get let down, the cancer is back again, it was a lot of ups and downs.”
Middle son, Jibril, recalls: “She was always telling me ‘You got this. Nothing can hold you back. There’s nothing that you can’t get through because we’re already getting through one of the hardest situations life can throw at us. Somebody always has it worse than you. There’s always somebody that’s dying to get in your situation because they have it 10 times worse than you. This is just another one of life’s battles that’s gonna make you stronger at the end of the day. You could either be a victim, or stand up and just push for one more day, one more year, one more treatment. She never showed how bad it was. Some days she’d be on top of the world and other days, you know, she would be just looking for answers to why things are the way they are, but at the end of every day, she was always thankful that she was here for another day. It was never like ‘I want people to feel bad for me or I’m feeling bad for myself.’ When I would tell people my mom was sick, they were like, like How?!? She doesn’t look sick, she doesn’t even look over 40!”
Candace came to terms with having a third major cancer and did what she’d done countless times in her battles during the preceding three decades, she got back on her feet, putting on her gloves, and fought, AGAIN. She fought and lived seven years past the day her kidney cancer forced her back into the ring. Seven years was long enough to see her children reach adulthood, her sons Jahmai and Jibril graduate college and her youngest, daughter Kalisah, graduate high school.
Towards the end, with her disease progressing, and knowing that the chemo medicines weren’t working, there was one last thing she needed to do despite being seriously ill—accompany her daughter to Egypt and help her get set up for her gap year. Kalisah recalls her mother’s drive to do that for her despite how seriously ill she was as a defining moment. Candace stayed a month and then flew back alone—a 24 hour journey. The trip nearly killed her. By the time she reached Philly, she was too weak to exit the plane on her own. She was immediately admitted by oncology and learned that her cancer had spread to the lungs on both sides. Kim recalls “We celebrated the New Year’s and she was gaining her strength. She decides to go back on a class of chemo drugs that caused her heart failure in the past. Within two weeks she developed shortness of breath and was in heart failure. Then came the hard truth that there were no more treatment options, and Candace’s oncologist recommended hospice.” Kimberly makes sure to point out that “the oncologist actually told Candace that she loved her. She just had this effect on people. If you knew her, you loved her.”
Candace was home on hospice in January and February, she was getting a little better. Then in mid-March something happens—she gets confused, can’t complete sentences, can’t remember things. She’d developed terminal delirium, a state of confusion, restlessness, and extreme agitation that can occur in some individuals who are nearing the end of their life. She was dead by April 1 (2022). In retrospect, Kimberly believes that the treatment that saved Can’s life when she was 17 years old ultimately ended up taking it.
At the time of Candace’s transition, Kimberly had been off Facebook for three years and wasn’t interested in social media. “After my sister passed, I went back on Facebook; I heard in my mind—I think it was my sister—telling me: read my texts.” And she did so with a compulsion that kept her up late many a night, going through ten years worth of text messages, 1300 pages to be exact.
“The love between us, the encouragement and motivation, and the sharing of our lives, our grief. Our story was all there.” Kim started putting out snippets of their text conversations on Facebook. Kim says sharing those texts brought her closer to Candace “I could feel how I felt when this was going on; after she passed, it was my connection to her. I could feel the love from her to me. And so I got through the texts and the grief. I’ve never felt grief in my life. Grief is something totally different from sadness. It hits you deep down in your soul—in the core of your being. The emotional pain, it feels like physical pain. And I just poured out my heart writing to my sister and would put this on Facebook and it was just my way of getting out my feelings, how I felt about my sister and our experiences.”
Kim’s mother encouraged her to incorporate those texts into a book, and thus she published , Memoirs of My Sister, which she says “includes our life together even though we were in different states and sometimes different countries. We always stayed connected through texts, and conversation. It tells her story, it tells her fight, how she kept going by helping others. If she could help somebody live just one more day or one more hour, that would keep her living.” Memoirs.. was also a vehicle for Kim to work through the grief of such a devastating loss. “We watched her go from being able to eat to not being able to swallow, from being able to walk, to not being able to stand.” Kim went on to publish three books about her sister, the most recent being ,In Memory of My Sister , released in June of 2023.
Thinking about Candace’s story, talking with her family and friends about their memories of her, their grief, brings to mind poet Khalil Gibran’s words on joy and sorrow: “The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain. Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven? And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives? When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy. When you are sorrowful, look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.” Her life was beauty in the midst of ugliness. So many people are better for having known and loved her. That much is obvious. Most of us would be lucky to survive one of the aggressive forms of cancer Candace beat; so her journey represents a completely different level.
“Candace often metaphorically referred to her battle with cancer as being like a boxing match in which she was fighting an invisible, vicious, and unrelenting opponent with no rules and no referee. I called her my ‘Champ,’…” – Excerpted from In Memory of My Sister
Cancer survivors and patients are almost universally described as warriors. Sadly, the term feels almost cliché because of its omnipresence. In truth, maybe we’ve become jaded because we hear it so often. Habituation or not, warrior is not an empty descriptor. This truth is irrefutable if you’ve ever experienced the ravages of cancer—directly or through its devastating effects on a loved one—you know innately that you must be a warrior if you hope to prevail over this insidious disease. But describing Candace Syres simply as a warrior seems woefully inadequate, almost disrespectful. Titan seems a more fitting way to describe this extraordinary woman who, over the course of three decades, fought and beat two major cancers, and nearly beat a third, all while taking care of others (not just her kids). Candace remained unflinchingly determined to come out on top and to help others, in so doing she touched countless lives in her journey. The ripple effects of how she lived are still being felt. Life presented Candace Syres with extraordinary challenges, which she met and conquered, all while exhibiting unequaled grace and compassion. Legacy of Hope is honored to have helped Candace Ann Syres and to call her family. Rest in Power, Titan.
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