Living with Grace, Dying with Dignity

Living with Grace, Dying with Dignity

Vienna woman's attitude toward life despite breast cancer inspired family and friends.

When Ardith Polk accompanied her friend Candy Leyton to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for cancer treatment, they would joke on the elevator and in the waiting room about Leyton's breast cancer and her probable death. After treatment one day several years ago, Polk and Leyton were looking at next season's outfits at a nearby store. Leyton shocked the saleswoman by saying that she should buy the outfit because, she was, you know, a dying woman. Polk recalled the saleswoman turning pale.

"She just handled the whole thing with such grace and honor," Polk said of Leyton's 17-year struggle with breast cancer, which finally with her death on Feb. 16, 2003. "She had such an unbelievably raucous laugh."

A wife, mother, friend and math teacher, Candace "Candy" Leyton, 54, lost her long battle against breast cancer two days after Valentine's Day. She died in her Vienna home.

Yet although the cancer defeated Leyton's body, friends and family say it didn't defeat her spirit. They remember an intelligent, witty and caring woman who was a dedicated teacher, a voracious reader who loved female authors, and a concerned world citizen.

"She was very brave that way. She wasn't going to sit around and say, woe is me," said friend Buffy Nicolas.

Leyton was born in Nebraska and bred in Wyoming. Her mother was a librarian and her father a teacher, principal and school superintendent. She went to Antioch College, where she met Peter, her future husband. She was originally going to be pre-med but switched to elementary education.

"She attributed herself to be too lazy," joked Peter Leyton about his wife's choice of a major.

After graduation and marriage, the couple settled in Fairfax County, where Leyton taught math to fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders at Wolftrap Elementary. Leyton stayed at Wolftrap for 23 years.

During that time, she befriended many teachers and parents.

"We just connected. We were like soul mates. It was just serendipity," said Polk, whose two oldest sons were taught by Leyton. Polk and Leyton attended ballet, opera and the symphony together, in addition to discussing world events and trying exotic restaurants. "We solved all the problems of the world and realized we couldn't solve it all. And then we'd start over again."

Another acquaintance from Wolftrap, her former colleague Nicolas, said Leyton introduced her to the joys of owning Portuguese water dogs.

"That was a special connection, having brother and sister puppies," Nicolas said.

In the classroom, Leyton tailored lesson plans to students' needs and created projects that would engage them. In the early 1990s, Leyton's dedication to teaching led her to present at math workshops and conferences. She also served on the advisory board of the Virginia Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

"She was really good at seeing each of her students as individuals," said her friend and former colleague Constance Dagitz, who worked with Leyton at Cooper Middle School. Leyton taught at Cooper from 1994 to 2002. "She really wanted students to understand what they were doing."

Yet as her teaching career thrived, so did the cancer. The first time she had breast cancer was in 1986, when her daughter was 3. Leyton was treated and good for five years. In 1991, the cancer resurfaced. Leyton tried a bone marrow transplant and high-dosage chemotherapy at NIH. It seemed to work at first, but it was a temporary fix, for in 1999, doctors found that the cancer had spread to her liver and bones. She tried another NIH protocol. That didn't work, either. Then there was one final remission from January to August 2001.

"You basically start waiting for the other shoe to drop," her husband said. "Her doctor said today [she was] heroic, really."

But during that time, Leyton refused to give up living. She and her husband continued to raise their two children and travel. She loved attending the opera, her favorite being "Fidelio." She cooked Christmas dinner and sang with her church choir.

"She has been my family, to be honest," said her next-door neighbor Janet Franko, who spent hours on the phone with Cindy talking about their families and their fears and goals. "I feel lucky to have had her in my life."

And while the final bout proved too insidious for her to continue a full-time teaching career, Leyton still volunteered at Lake Anne Elementary and Cooper Middle, running after-school math groups. When she left Lake Anne, the students made her a card and asked Nicolas, who's now teaching at Lake Anne, how Leyton was doing.

"She loved math, and that showed," Nicolas said.

Even during her final moments, Leyton showed her steady stream of well-wishing friends what it meant to die with dignity.

"She was funny, even until the end," Nicolas said.

Polk agreed, "Candy gave me a role model of how to do this, not as a martyr, but with dignity."

"It's been wonderful to see the group of friends that Candy had come together and support each other," Dagitz said.

"She didn't let it beat her," said her husband Peter of the cancer.