Candace Nicoleau is no stranger to overcoming struggle.
When she was 16, she left her home in the Caribbean nation of St. Vincent and the Grenadines to seek a better life in the United States. She moved to Brooklyn and crammed into a one-bedroom apartment with her two siblings and her mother.
So, more than two decades later, in 2017, when she was diagnosed with a highly invasive form of breast cancer, she saw it as another obstacle to conquer.
“I didn’t think about myself,” Nicoleau, 40, of Baldwin, said of her mindset then. “I was more worried about my husband and my kids."
As Women's History Month comes to a close, Nicoleau, a woman who defied a grim diagnosis to achieve her dreams, is an inspirational reminder of the contributions everyday women make as mothers, business owners and much more.
A mother of three at the time of her diagnosis, her initial treatment was complicated by the fact that she had another child on the way.
Nicoleau was six months pregnant when she felt discomfort in her right breast that intensified after several days. She went for an exam, where doctors discovered a small lump, about 1.7 centimeters. Due to her pregnancy, they opted not to perform a mammogram screening because of the radiation involved and instead did an ultrasound and later a biopsy that confirmed the cancer.
The tumor and the fetus grew simultaneously, so Nicoleau and her family knew they needed to act quickly. In December 2017, a month after her diagnosis and at 6 1/2 months pregnant, she had a Caesarean section to deliver her son Myles.
“We had to find a sweet spot between Myles being developed enough, but not waiting too long for the cancer to progress too far,” her husband Marc, 38, said.
The tumor grew rapidly, and the cancer had spread to a lymph node, Nicoleau said. In February 2018, Nicoleau had surgery to remove her breast and 13 lymph nodes. Just a few months later, doctors would give a grim diagnosis of 9 to 12 months to live.
At the time, she was working toward a master's degree in nursing at Stony Brook University.
The day before her surgery, Nicoleau went to Stony Brook to take a test, and two weeks afterward, she was back in the classroom.
“I’ve always been a go-getter, but I said, 'If I’m going to die, I’m going to do everything I want to do,'” she said.
The realization of her mortality gave her a sense of urgency and purpose, and Nicoleau decided that she wanted to finish school and open her own practice.
“Her temperament and spirit are so high and it’s almost a blessing that we can at times forget that she has cancer and plan for the future as if the future is inevitable,” Marc said.
In 2019, Nicoleau earned her master's degree in nursing, specializing in adult-gerontological health. That same year, she visited a hospital in Mexico in search of alternative treatments. There she developed the concept for a business.
Today, Nicoleau is the owner of Be Totally Well, a holistic health center in East Meadow. She also has developed an organic skin care line.
The health center treats about 60 patients. Her services include primary care, medical assisted weight loss, and IV vitamin therapy.
Her son Myles, with whom she was pregnant at the time of her diagnosis, is now 4. Her three other children are Athalia, 20; Ammiel, 18; and Mason, 5.
In the United States, there is a 1-in-8, or 13%, chance a woman will develop breast cancer, according to the American Cancer Society. However, there are more than 3.8 million breast cancer survivors in the country, including women still being treated and those who have completed treatment.
Nicoleau is currently under the care of an oncologist and receives immunotherapy treatments every three weeks to prolong her life. Still, her cancer has spread.
Her Christian faith, a priority on mental and physical health, and the support of her family have helped her push through the tough times.
“I wanted to leave a legacy for my kids, so even if I’m not here they can say, 'Mommy did everything she said she was going to do,' and to motivate them to do better for themselves,” Nicoleau said.