Candace Woodson will tell you she is back on top. Back from breast cancer, a total mastectomy and reconstructive surgery. The woman who began singing inspirational songs at church when she was barely 5 years old has a personal message to share with the world: “Don’t give up.”

National Cancer Survivors Day was recognized on June 7, and Woodson’s message of survival is one she is determined to share. “I’m a breast cancer survivor,” she said. “God let me live, so I’ve let it go, and I’m living life to the fullest.”

That includes doing what she loves. Twenty–nine days after her surgery at MUSC to remove a cancerous tumor from her breast and lymph nodes, she was back at work. Not at a desk. Not in an office. No, Woodson was on stage performing at the wedding reception of Justice Mellencamp — John Cougar Mellencamp’s daughter — in Sea Pines Plantation on Hilton Head Island. And as she dazzled the crowd, it wasn’t because she sat on a stool singing low–key love ballads. No, Woodson gave the audience full–tilt versions of Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner, Chaka Khan and Michael Jackson classics, leaving them exhausted from dancing to “old–school grooves” as she calls them.

She said she was never going to let cancer get the best of her. “I didn’t internalize the disease. I didn’t allow it to control me. Cancer did not own me — it was not a part of me. I was adamant — cancer is not going to dictate my life.” 

Judy Horton, R.N., the breast nurse navigator at the MUSC Bluffton Medical Campus, got to know Woodson over the past year. “From the moment we met Candace in clinic,” she said, “we knew right away that she was a fighter. Her spunk and determination are the very threads that make her this tiny little fireball.”

Both spunk and determination can be seen in how she has prevailed since receiving her diagnosis and going through two surgeries. On June 29, her first single as an independent artist will be released worldwide through Sony Music Entertainment’s label, The Orchard.  The single is titled “All it Takes,” and she recorded it in Nashville with producer Kendall Duffie this past February. “I had done all that I could do after my reconstruction; it was like, ‘Candace it’s time, you’ve always had this dream. It’s time.’”

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A Unique Gift

That same spunk and determination started at a very young age. The youngest of three girls, Candace started singing in church. Every Sunday, “The Parks Sisters” would belt out gospel songs at churches they would visit. From those experiences she developed a deep faith in God, one that would sustain her through difficult times, as well as an undying passion for music.

And while the happy face of the family is what people saw on Sunday mornings, she credits her mother, Carolyn Parks, for removing the three girls and herself from an abusive situation. “We literally ran for our lives,” Woodson said. “And still my mom managed to model a godly life and an example of love and dedication to her family."

Early on, people told her family she had a unique gift — something special that should be nurtured. And though her two sisters did not pursue careers in music, she did.  At the time she entered high school, no freshman had even been accepted into the premier singing group “The Magicals” — that is until she was extended an invitation.

While her roots were in gospel music, her music instructor challenged her to expand the types of music she sang, and she did not disappoint him, quickly developing a sound that could stretch from pop and R&B to country, even jazz. “I wish he could see me now,” she lamented. “He used to ask people, ‘Have you heard her sing? She can sing anything.’ He had such a belief in me.”

Her talent landed her a scholarship to Tennessee State University, and she earned the distinction of being the first graduate with a commercial music degree. Her ambitions were strong, and she had every intention of going for it.

But as life would have it, after graduation she met someone and fell in love. Like many women, she selflessly put her own dreams on hold to marry and start a family. “I was so determined to pursue my dreams, but being a mom was more important to me at the time.”

Dreams on Hold

Living in Nashville, Tennessee, she managed to stay in the industry after her son, Jared, was born. She worked for a record label as the director of promotions and then as a radio personality. She recounted with great pride that the person who hired her had also hired Oprah Winfrey. “It was the same station she got her start on,” she said. “He used to tell people, ‘Don’t get used to her, she won’t be here long. She’s just like Oprah.’”

But even though she had that spark, that something special, her dreams were still on hold. Luckily, though, she found a new passion when Jared showed a talent for playing tennis at a young age. With her husband in the military and frequently deployed, Woodson and Jared traveled all over the country to promote his career, with an 18–month–old in tow.

When her husband was stationed in Columbia, South Carolina, Woodson decided it was time to get serious about Jared’s tennis game and ensure he had a high–caliber coach. They were close enough to Hilton Head Island, a well–known mecca for tennis stars and enthusiasts, to make Jared’s tennis career a priority.

At only 11 years old, he was accepted into the prestigious Van Der Meer Tennis Academy World Class Program, working with founder Dennis Van Der Meer, who had previously coached Billie Jean King. Tennis pervaded their lives. An all–around athlete at the Hilton Head Preparatory School, no one was surprised when Jared went on to achieve the rank of #10 in the nation. Currently, he is at Eastern Illinois University, having been awarded a tennis scholarship to play for the EIU Panthers. Jared credits his mom as the biggest influence in his sports career, "Because,” he said, “she has been there for me through the good and bad."

Ten years after the birth of Jared, Woodson and her husband welcomed a second son to the family. Morgan, nicknamed Momo, is following in his brother’s footsteps, having shown the same superior tennis skills at a very young age. He began training and competing with the Van Der Meer Tennis Academy at 4 years old. Woodson said, “Momo has the gift. Who knows? He may even surpass his brother.”

Blind-sided

A few years after Morgan’s birth, Woodson and her husband went their separate ways. She said it was a scary time for her. She was thrust into a position of having to find a way to support herself and two young boys. She would have to become independent again.

“I thought to myself, ‘what am I going to do? Wait a minute, I can sing.’ Then I thought, ‘Why don’t I put together a band here on the island?’” That was in 2009, and she soon became the headliner at the Omni Hotel where she performed with her band, Candace Woodson and the Domino Theory Band, for the next five years.  In short order, she and the band developed a huge, loyal fan base, and she became something of a celebrity on the island.

She was finally doing what she loved again: performing. She was working with an amazing band leader, Tony Royster Sr., and co–writing songs with him. The band had steady work and was booking lots of engagements around the island and beyond. Her boys were excelling in sports and academically. Things were good. But then, during a routine checkup, she received a devastating diagnosis: breast cancer. She was blindsided. All she could think about was her boys and wanting to be there for them.

She didn’t have a mate to rely on for support, but she had her faith. “I had to gather that strength through my spiritual relationship with God. I know the power of God in my life. It is he who sustained me, he who has blessed me, and it is he who continues to help me live my dream and tell my story.”

On Sept. 5, she underwent a total mastectomy. As an entertainer on a small island, word got around fast. But the grapevine in this case was actually a blessing. People flocked to help. “I had such an incredible support group on the island. Because of people loving my music, they rallied around me to make me feel empowered.”

“I was torn over whether to tell my story,” she admitted, “as I didn’t want pity, and I didn’t want people to think it was a way for them to do for me. I was praying at the beach one day and it was like, ‘No! Your music has purpose. This is a mission. You are the poster child for survival — you can show people not to give up.’”

That revelation made her even more determined to fight. “I’ve watched so many people not know what to do after cancer. ‘What do I do?’ they ask. I want to show them. You keep doing what you do at a greater level. You tell people your story. I’m a testimony that if you don’t give up, great things will happen. I tell them, ‘Now you can be compassionate because you’ve been through it yourself.  Don’t give up.’”

Dreams Coming True

Not only is she not giving up, she’s pushing even harder. In addition to her new single coming out, she has recorded a second single to be released in August, titled “Back on Top.” “It tells the story of someone who’s been hurt, heartbroken and blind–sided by cancer,” she explained. “Here I am trying to take care of my boys. I’m thinking, ‘I don’t need to have this right now.’ I didn’t realize it was the best thing that could have happened to me because it made me value what’s important in life.”

And what is the most important thing in life, according to Woodson? “It’s family,” she said. “Family first and loving yourself in a way you can give back to others. If you don’t love yourself, you can’t do for anybody else. Once you’re fulfilling your purpose, you can help somebody else live out theirs.”

She knows it’s time for her to fulfill her passion. “I will always put my kids first,” she said. “But by helping myself, I am helping them. I’m making them better people if I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing. I’m showing them what it’s like to have a dream and pursue it and never give up.”

After her reconstruction surgery in January, she decided it was time to move on from the band. “We did a blowout New Year’s Eve celebration at the Omni. Then I had surgery. I thought, ‘mission accomplished.’ Now instead of being part of a band, she hires musicians to play behind her. It used to be Candace Woodson and the Domino Theory Band; now it’s just Candace Woodson. “Kind of like Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine. Now it’s just Gloria Estefan,” she laughed.

She is excited about the release of the two singles. “My hope is that I can encourage and motivate and inspire through my music. My music promotes happiness, resilience, belief. Those things we don’t have a lot of these days. So much music is plastic and doesn’t have meaning or serve a purpose. My music is supposed to carry you through hard times — carry you through a time when you’re wondering if you can make it one more day. It’s supposed to make you believe that love does still exist — that you should give it a shot.” 

She is grateful for the investor who sponsored the two songs she recorded. As she awaits their releases, she’s hoping to do a complete CD. She said, “I’m actually believing in myself. I’m going for it, and I’m hoping someone wants to join me on this journey.”

She also is grateful to her doctors and nurses at MUSC. “I want to give high shout-outs to Judy Horton — she’s an angel; Dr. (Virginia) Herrmann — I told her I needed to be here to raise my boys and that love for my sons touched her heart; Dr. (Kevin) Delaney — his bedside manner was so compassionate; and Dr. (Frank) Brescia — I am so glad Judy Horton put that man in my path. He has really been a positive, encouraging force. There’s a safety net that you’re in good hands with him.”

Horton marvels at Woodson’s resilience. “She is an amazing and inspirational woman, and her infectious smile and bubbling personality are testaments to how she has coped with her diagnosis and not let it get her down. Candace is just one of those phenomenal people that you can't help but want to be around. It's incredible that she wants to share her story in order to empower other women to overcome their obstacles and not just survive, but have fun doing it.”

Photography and Design by Christian Steinmetz