For three years, while building a business, Candace Schaefer fought cancer like a champion

  • Candace Schaefer warms up for her morning jazzercise class at Thrive Group Fitness in Concord on Friday morning, July 9, 2021. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Candace Schaefer warms up for her morning jazzercise class at Thrive Group Fitness in Concord on Friday morning, July 9, 2021. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Candace Schaefer hangs out with her daughter, Lydia, before her jazzercise class at Thrive Group Fitness in Concord on Friday morning. GEOFF FORESTER photos / Monitor staff

  • Candace Schaefer warms up for her morning jazzercise class at Thrive Group Fitness in Concord on Friday morning. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Monitor columnist
Published: 7/15/2021 7:01:55 AM

Little by little, explaining one setback at a time, Candace Schaefer listed the obstacles that once stopped her progress like a Boston traffic jam.

So buckle your seatbelt.

She spoke about cancer, of course. Breast cancer, which started it all. Schaefer was declared cancer-free three years ago. Along the way, though, nothing went right until, finally, she had conquered every sudden danger to her health.

Then she battled a new cancer, acute myeloid leukemia, possibly caused by the treatment that she had received for the old cancer. She beat that, too, which is why her fledgling business in Concord, Thrive Group Fitness, is alive with jazzercise and hope.

That’s the bottom line in a story with more lows and highs than a rollercoaster on steroids.

“With all the hurdles I’ve been through, I’m at a point where I just have to keep going,” Schaefer said by phone this week. “I made it through this, and, God willing, I hope there’s nothing left to jump over.”

Schaefer wants to grow her business, which she purchased from Laura Tewksbury in January of 2019. Tewksbury had owned what was then called Jazzercise of Concord for 21 years.

She sold the business and moved to the coast of Maine with her husband, former Big League pitcher Bob Tewksbury. Laura Tewksbury and Schaefer remain close.

Laura taught Zoom classes for the new business owner, a 2003 Merrimack Valley High graduate who had been an instructor for Laura since 2006.

At the time of the transaction 2½ years ago, Schaefer had been cleared of breast cancer. She had not yet received the news about her leukemia, however. That came 11 months later.

“Whatever could have gone wrong, did,” Laura Tewksbury said. “She went through that for three full years. She had a goal to have a fitness- or wellness-based business. That was her passion, so this was crazy. She had this passion and she gets blindsided by this whole thing.”

Said Schaefer, simply, “So many things could have taken my life.”

Her breast cancer diagnosis surfaced after she felt a lump. She was 32, hoping one day to buy the business from Laura and start her new career. She had a husband, Fred Schaefer, and a daughter, Lydia, who’s now 10.

This cancer thing was not part of the plan. Schaefer, recalling the diagnosis, sounded strong on the phone, saying, “I like to see myself as a positive person. Even when things got bad, I had family and friends surrounding me and the support I needed to get me through.

“If you’re a negative person, there’s no way you can get through that treatment. It’s incredibly difficult.”

Yes, it is. Worse than she could have known. Start with her allergy to a drug, Taxol, used in chemotherapy, needed to fight breast cancer. To solve that, each session, normally one or two hours long, would require six hours, perhaps seven.

Schaefer also said that she nearly died from a staff infection. That led to sepsis. That led to six weeks of IV antibiotics, 24/7. Her chemo sessions in Boston were put on hold while she maneuvered through that.

The cancer was gone by the summer of 2018. Bald, Schaefer wore a rainbow-colored wig, purchased by Lydia, for her final radiation treatment.

“My daughter thought it would be fun,” Schaefer said. “That was a turning point, because I wasn’t afraid of the surgery as much as the chemo. By that time, I was so tired.”

She had reconstructive surgery. It went well. She felt well. Eight months later, she drove to Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston to meet with her oncology team. A routine checkup. Probably nothing to worry about.

That’s why Schaefer drove to Boston alone. Lab results, however, showed something was wrong. The oncologist, crying, told Schaefer she now had leukemia.

While not certain that drugs used during chemo for Schaefer’s breast cancer led to her leukemia, the medical community has not ruled out a connection.

Said one journal, published by the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in the New York City area:

“Although the mutations are present much earlier than previously known, the investigators don’t completely dismiss the role of chemotherapy in the development of leukemia. They believe that these drugs may make the environment for leukemia more hospitable and may help it grow and spread more effectively.”

Schaefer, emotionally crushed, couldn’t drive home. She called her husband, Fred, who picked her up.

“I thought that I did everything I could do to be healthy and I still got hit,” Schaefer told me. “I thought I will not make it through this. But I thought about my daughter and thought that I had to.”

She needed a stem cell transplant. Her mother drove her back to the hospital the very next day. More treatment, chemo, the start of another long stay, this time for a month.

Meanwhile, a donor was needed. From here, it sounds like a movie. With a ridiculous plot. Schaefer had a stem cell transplant on March 11, 2020.

Does that date ring a bell?

“The same day,” Schaefer said, “that the Coronavirus is deemed a world-wide pandemic. Go figure.”

The saga, sad and maddening, continued from there. COVID-19 meant no visitors – none – during this latest visit.

(I promise, her new life is approaching).

Two months after the transplant, Schaefer collapsed at home. She was diagnosed with Thrombotic MicroAngiopathy, a side effect of the medication used to fight her leukemia. Her blood vessels had been damaged.

It’s rare, but this is Candace Schaefer we’re talking about. Somewhere, the cancer gods chose to test her. See how tough she was.

She returned home last summer. She had done her best, via Zoom, to explain to Lydia why something so terrible had returned, and why mom had to go back to the hospital.

“She already knew mommy was off, being quiet,” Schaefer said. “That is not normal, and she noticed something was wrong.”

Schaeffer kept tabs on her business throughout all those months in the hospital. Paperwork, coordinating schedules.

Meanwhile, her 10 instructors, who were subcontracted out, agreed to teach. They kept teaching until she returned. They were yet another part of a vast support system.

That still exists. Only this time, family and friends are celebrating her recovery. And they can see her in person. Her stem cell transplant was more than a year ago. She still goes to Boston to be monitored.

Knock on wood. Finally, her thoughts are on other matters. Like growing her business. And in August, the family will drive across the country in their recently bought RV. Fred got time off from work. Lydia is on summer break.

Candace wants to let loose for three weeks, see Yellowstone National Park and Mount Rushmore and the Grand Canyon. Spend quality time not sweating the small stuff.

“We’re going to celebrate everything we’ve been through,” Schaefer said. “It’s been quite a journey. This has always been a dream and we’ve always put it off.

“Hopefully I’ve been through enough now that I can set sail.”

Ray Duckler bio photo

Ray Duckler, our intrepid columnist, focuses on the Suncook Valley. He floats from topic to topic, searching for the humor or sadness or humanity in each subject. A native New Yorker, he loves the Yankees and Giants. The Red Sox and Patriots? Not so much.

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