Every morning Candice Adams walks down the stairs of her Capitol Hill home past a picture of the most romantic moment of her life. She had arrived in England just in time to watch her fiance, Air Force Maj. Ryan Ismirle, land his F-15 Eagle after leading a unit of men home from Afghanistan. She raced across the tarmac to kiss him; the camera caught them, one of her high-heels floating up off the ground and Ismirle still in his flight suit.
She just didn’t know that moment of romance would also be one of her last moments of normalcy. Three days later, as they vacationed in Budapest, she woke up in a beautiful hotel room, stretched and felt something hard deep inside her breast. She was 29 years old.
Adams, an Air Force captain who works in public affairs, met Ismirle at an officer training school in Alabama in January 2008.
“I remember doing the double take when he walked in the room, ‘cause he’s crazy attractive,” Adams says. “But I was just really impressed with his ability to interact with people. He’s very good at doing any kind of leadership thing. He can talk to anybody and be friends with anybody.”
Ismirle, a fighter pilot who, with his twin brother, was the first in his family to graduate from a four-year college, was also intrigued by Adams. But he was getting ready to ship off to England and wasn’t focused on starting a romance. After eight weeks, they said goodbye without so much as a kiss.
They stayed in touch: Adams, who was stationed in Alaska, would e-mail, and occasionally Ismirle would call. Their feelings grew despite the distance. Ismirle, now 34, went out with his buddies to clubs in Europe, but he found himself unable to even consider another woman. “That’s kind of how I knew,” he says. “I’m half a world away and not interested in hitting on other girls.”
In December, he flew home for a break and invited Adams to meet him in Washington. “This is kind of corny to say, but I already knew that I was head over heels in love,” she says. “I just knew. We’ve always had that weird connection somehow.”
They saw the White House Christmas tree and walked around the Lincoln Memorial at night. They went ice skating and drank hot chocolate and finally they kissed. “It was just this perfect, beautiful, winter weekend in this amazing city,” she says.
By the end, they decided they were committed to each other. After he left for his first tour in Afghanistan, she sent him care packages and when she had the chance, she hopped on a plane carrying Army equipment and flew halfway across the world to visit him for just an hour and a half.
By the time he got back to England five months later, Adams was stationed at Fort Meade, Md., which made it easy for her to meet up with him for quick getaways in cities across Europe. In April 2010, just before he was scheduled to return to Afghanistan, they traveled to Venice. As they looked out over the city from their hotel, Ismirle proposed.
It was five months later that Adams noticed the lump. She assumed it was nothing menacing; her family had no history of breast cancer and her mother had had benign cysts before. But her mom insisted she visit a doctor immediately upon her return to the United States. By the end of their two-week trip, Adams felt sure the mass had grown. “I thought maybe it was my head playing tricks on me,” she says.
Adams was squeezed in for an appointment at Walter Reed Army Medical Center her first day back. The initial biopsy came back clean, but her doctors were still worried and ordered a second test. She was at work on Oct. 25, 2010 when she got the call: It was cancer.
“It was kind of like you’re at a movie. You don't feel it’s really happening — that you’re just kind of watching a movie but you happen to be playing the lead character,” she says. “It was really very surreal.”
Her parents sped in from Pennsylvania to be with her and called Ismirle in England to break the news. Then he spoke with Adams.
“He said, ‘Hey babe,’” she recalls. “And then he said, ‘Well, I’m gonna love you if you don’t have hair. And I’m gonna love if you don’t have boobs.’ That was the first thing that he said. And we were laughing. So one of the first things we did when we talked about it was laugh.”
Ismirle is analytical, logical and confident. “On the phone with her it was like, ‘This is what we’ve got to do. Let’s get to work, let’s get it done. There’s no option here,’” he says. “I’m comfortable in that role. That’s how I deal with it. And then I sit in my own little corner and think about it later.”
He flew home to be with Adams for 10 days in November as she went through fertility preservation and testing that would reveal she had a particularly aggressive type of cancer that doesn’t always respond to treatment and has a 70 percent chance of recurrence.
In January, he was transferred to a job at the Pentagon so he could be with her throughout most of her five months of chemotherapy. When she was feeling well between treatments, they went to concerts and bars and on Capitol Hill. “When I was around him, I didn't feel like a sick person. I didn’t feel like I looked sick,” says Adams, who has a giant smile and eyes that twinkle as she laughs. “He would always manage my pity parties and help me get through stuff. I can’t imagine what the whole year would’ve been like if he hadn’t been around.”
Adams, now 31, coped by writing letters to her cancer, blogging about her journey and encouraging young women to conduct breast self-exams. She opened her life to a military photographer, who documented her battle with a Web project called “Pink Kisses: Cancer My Way.”
In May 2011, Adams, who had lost her hair, underwent a double mastectomy. That day, she was declared cancer-free. Within a month, she and Adams began planning a wedding and made an offer on a Capitol Hill rowhouse.
“It was kind of exciting for us,” Ismirle says. “Yeah, it’s just a house, but it’s something in the future. We’re looking forward to our future together. It was kind of a way to go, ‘Hey, we’re in this. This cancer thing is a bump in the road.’ ”
There are times when Adams and Ismirle find themselves feeling grateful to cancer. “This is going to sound weird, but I’m glad this happened to me,” she says. “Because now I actually feel like I’m living my life better — more real, with a better perspective. We get so wrapped around the axel about the most inconsequential things. And none of it matters. It doesn’t matter that you got stuck in traffic. It doesn’t matter that you’re late for work. Life is just so fragile, and you have to choose whether you’re depressed and sad and sit on your couch and wither away, or if you choose to spend time and go to dinner with your fiance.
“Honestly, I don't worry about normal things now,” says Adams, who is undergoing a series of reconstructive surgeries. “I worry about, ‘What if it comes back?’ That’s the only thing I worry about.”
On June 2, she woke up early and dressed in pink to run the Susan G. Komen Global Race for the Cure with her bridesmaids. That same afternoon, Ismirle blinked back tears as Adams walked down the aisle of St. Joseph’s on Capitol Hill. A priest led them in their vows, and after pledging to love each other “in sickness and in health,” they smiled and shared a fist bump.
“It’s been a hell of a road,” Ismirle told friends and family at their Union Station reception that night. “It’s been a rough few years, but I tell ya, it’s been wonderful. We wouldn’t have changed a thing. And we couldn’t have done it without you.”
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