A Journey in Gratitude
Candice Vredevelt was coping with a terrible loss when she first felt the lump during a routine self-exam last year. “It was two weeks after my mom’s funeral,” says Vredevelt. “I pretty much knew what it was but I didn’t want to freak anybody else so I passed it off as a fibroid.”
Only 37 at the time, Vredevelt waited a few months to get a mammogram. Her mother, who died at 56, had suffered for years from PSP, a debilitating derivative of Parkinson’s. “I’d been through so much emotional stress already,” Vredevelt says. Then, her doctor examined the marble-sized growth in her breast and immediately ordered a biopsy. It was cancer.
“At first, I kept it under wraps, even from my husband,” says Vredevelt, who was diagnosed with an early stage of invasive ductal carcinoma. “I tried to stay positive, though I was scared. I have a young daughter.”
Vredevelt knew colleagues who’d gone through breast cancer — she’d celebrated their remission anniversaries with cake and hugs. She also learned that a friend from childhood, Apryle Schmidt, had been recently diagnosed. Though on different coasts — Schmidt, native to San Diego, had moved to Florida — the two checked in regularly, cheering each other on all along.
When it came to her treatment, Vredevelt approached each step like a seasoned professional, vetting her options thoroughly. She felt uneasy about one of her choices and cancelled the surgery the night prior. “I was very diligent and asked tons of questions.” she says.
Vredevelt’s surgery, a partial mastectomy, was a success, but her oncologist found cancer in a lymph node and recommended chemotherapy. “I’d told myself there was no way I’d do chemo,” says Vredevelt. “But I kept thinking about my daughter, who is now six. Then I had a dream of my mom telling me to get it done. I told my husband it was time.”
The side effects got worse with each of her four rounds of chemo. She managed some of her symptoms without painkillers, but couldn’t deal with her hair. “It starts to hurt so much as the cells are dying,” she explains. “So I shaved it. It felt amazing, like I was a totally different person.”
Around that time, Vredevelt met with her good friend and longtime Ranch & Coast photojournalist Kristy Walker, who shot a beautifully intimate series of Vredevelt, who still had to undergo radiation at the time of the session.
“She walked into the studio and she emanated a strength and positivity that was contagious,” recalls Walker. “She was also so candid about her experience.”
Vredevelt was luckier than many patients. Her tightknit family and friends pitched in with everything from babysitting to meals. Treatment was physically and emotionally exhausting though, and she scrambled to pay her out-of-pocket medical costs, which topped $25,000.
Now that she’s on the path to recovery, Vredevelt wants to help other women dealing with breast cancer. She knows she’s lucky. Her friend Apryle lost her battle — the Florida nonprofit Apryle Showers, named in her honor, now raises money to help middle-age cancer patients in Jacksonville with housing and food costs. Vredevelt has been talking to other local survivors and their family members while blogging about her experiences at mrslilv.wordpress.com.
“Breast cancer made me different as a wife, as a mom, and as a friend,” she says. “It changed my perspective on being grateful for what it is.” ANNAMARIA STEPHENS
Photography by Kristy Walker