An NCI-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center
By Zen Vuong | December 18, 2018
Seven City of Hope patients will welcome the New Year atop City of Hope’s 47th Rose Parade float, “Harmony of Hope.” Meet Candida Celaya, a breast cancer survivor who is using her second chance at life to give back to the community.
 
Before Celaya was diagnosed with breast cancer, she couldn’t fit much into her day besides work and family.
The then-43-year-old Celaya kept adding to her list of volunteer activities, but never found time to actually do them. She longed to return to singing, a teenage hobby she had to drop because “adulting” got in the way.
Everything changed when genetic testing revealed she had the BRCA2 gene mutation, which increased her chances of developing breast and ovarian cancer. Two weeks after this discovery, Celaya was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer.
“My immediate thought was, 'I’m going to die,'” said Celaya, from San Dimas, California. “Even though I had two sisters who are breast cancer survivors, I didn’t know what the future had in store for me. It was devastating! But, knowing I was being treated by the best doctors and getting the best treatment – that did help me walk away from thinking that this was a death sentence.”
Celaya has seven siblings: three brothers and four sisters. Six of them have the BRCA gene mutation, but only three have been diagnosed with breast cancer. Celaya was the third to face cancer.

Cue the music

The day before starting chemotherapy, Celaya watched the musical “Wicked” and was touched by the song “Defying Gravity.” The song imbued her with strength and became her theme song to survive cancer and restructure her life.
About a week after her diagnosis in 2008, Celaya had a bilateral mastectomy and immediate reconstruction. After four weeks of recovery, she started chemotherapy and radiation. She has been on hormone therapy and in remission for the last decade.
Her older sisters are also in remission. One of them has been cancer-free for 26 years, so Celaya now feels confident about her future. The question now is what she wants to do with it.

Making changes for the better

First, Celaya decided to spend less time in negative environments. She and her then-husband divorced.
“A marriage is challenged by an illness: It brings to light the problems that you already had,” Celaya said. “The illness isn’t the cause of the divorce, but when you go through that and you see the lack of support that hasn’t been there for other things, you realize life is short and you can’t live another day in that situation.”
Her life has changed in other ways. Celaya is tackling the volunteer items on her list. She fosters dogs until they find a permanent home. She volunteers at hospice facilities and at City of Hope.
She found a better work environment because, after all, adults spend most of their life at work. Celaya now teaches at a middle school in Chino and is working toward increasing the school’s liberal arts offerings, including starting a theater club.
Celaya returned to the love of her youth: music and musical theater. She performs in local theaters as much as she can, sings backup in a band and joined a professional caroling group.
“Illness lit a fire under me to do the things I’ve always wanted to do and to give back to my community in ways that I had always thought were important but couldn’t find time to do,” she said. “Faced with death, I reevaluated my life and understood I needed to live a purposeful life going forward. I wanted to do my part in leaving this world a better place — not just for my family but also for the community.”
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