Keisha Pittman’s Story
While attending a play, Keisha Pittman felt a pain in her neck, a temporary discomfort she attributed to straining to see the action on stage. It wasn’t until intermission when she looked in the mirror that she saw the left side of her neck was noticeably swollen.
The next morning she visited her primary care physician who scheduled a CT scan, which confirmed a significant mass in her neck. He proceeded to do a full body scan, which identified additional masses in the lymph nodes of her neck and chest. After two weeks of worry and the unknown, she was referred to medical oncologist Dr. Lawrence Mendelsohn who officially diagnosed her with Stage 2A Hodgkins Lymphoma on April 7, 2008.
With a family history of cancer – grandmother, grandfather and two uncles – Keisha admittedly thought of cancer as an “old person’s disease.” She had seen its effects up close and personal, but she’d always been the caretaker and, at just 25 years old, felt “invincible.”
When she heard the diagnosis, Keisha said, “in my head, I thought ‘a mass means tumor, tumor means cancer and cancer means death.’ I knew what cancer could do to people, so it took me about three days to get over the initial shock. I wasn’t prepared to think about what life beyond cancer could look like.”
After coming to grips with her diagnosis, Keisha and Dr. Mendelsohn met to set her course of treatment. It was in this meeting that she knew he was the right doctor to fight this fight for her. She said, “I appreciated his honesty and transparency about my diagnosis and prognosis. He pulled me in, listened to my concerns and continued to reassure my parents and friends who would come to appointments with me.”
As a young woman in her mid-20s, she distinctly remembers a conversation with Dr. Mendelsohn where they considered whether or not she should harvest her eggs since chemotherapy can damage a woman’s eggs, affecting her fertility. Knowing that the process to harvest and freeze her eggs would delay her ability to start treatment, Keisha forgoed that option because she said, “taking care of my own healing was all my fighter spirit was ready to handle.”
Over the next several months, Keisha underwent 12 chemotherapy treatments and 17 radiation treatments. As a resident of Arkadelphia, Keisha traveled two hours roundtrip to Little Rock. To cut down her travel time, Dr. Mendelsohn coordinated with medical facilities in her local community to provide her follow-up care, including weekly shots. She said this personalized level of care “brought [me] into the process of healing. It charged up my fighter spirit and made me want to fight harder.”
Of the hardest part of her treatment, Keisha said it was the side effects of radiation, especially since the treatment was being directed at her head and neck area. She experienced swelling in her esophagus and developed ulcers in her mouth, gums and on the inside of her cheeks. Her medical team coordinated with CARTI’s on-site dentist and nutritional support staff for specialized products that helped alleviate her side effects.
As a professional communicator who spent her spare time singing in her church’s praise team, the side effect that brought her the most heartache was a temporary raspy voice. She said, ‘that was the biggest mental hurdle I had to work through because I felt like I lost my money maker.” While her voice has mostly returned, she says springtime allergies can bring back the “chemo rasp,” but she looks at it as a “reminder of the healing in my life and how far I’ve come.”
Now 11 years in remission, Keisha says “I knew from the beginning of the process that the one, five and 10 year milestones would be significant. I have successfully, joyfully and prayerfully checked off each one.”
Keisha attributes the success of her treatment to the many providers who cared for her throughout her journey. She says CARTI’s comprehensive approach to cancer care gave her “confidence knowing a team was overseeing my treatment. The medical staff, including all of the nurses and technicians, care for you in a very genuine, healing way. They are faces and names I can recall even today.”
And while she didn’t know if it would be possible, Keisha and her husband welcomed their first child, Joshua, last year. She said, “he continues to be a reminder of God’s bigger plan and I can’t wait to tell him what a miracle he is.”
At her most recent annual check-up, which she attended with Joshua, now one, in tow, Dr. Mendelsohn told her “it’s nice to see you and to see a story turn out so good.” Keisha said, “his words took my breath away. It truly shows you the fragility of life, but it also puts into perspective how blessed I’ve been. Every breath is a gift, and whatever fills those days is a blessing.”
As she moves forward, Keisha can’t help but look back on her journey. She says, “for a while I thought it was a scarlet letter; I had the ‘c-word.’ But now it’s a banner I wave; a marking of where I’ve been. I survived cancer, I can do anything. When a hardship or obstacle comes my way I know I can tackle it because I’ve already proven to myself I can overcome one of the hardest battles in life. Today and every day, I embrace a warrior mindset.”
Our interview with Keisha was full of so many memories and words of wisdom. Continue reading to see her responses to certain questions.
On how she defines a survivor:
“A survivor is a warrior. I’ve been through the hardest days. I’ve been weak, sick and tired. But through it all, I made it to the other side. I’m not invincible, but I can do darn near anything. I have battle wounds and hard lessons my heart needed to heal from, but it’s a journey I’ve walked.”
On her relationship with Dr. Mendelsohn:
“You really get to know someone after 11 years. He was there to deliver a hard diagnosis and an opportunity of hope as he laid out my treatment plan. He was there at my weakest when I passed out in his office one day because I didn’t eat breakfast before my blood draw. He saw me with a receding hairline as my hair started to fall out. He saw me with scars on my chest and burns on my neck from radiation. He saw me smile through the exhaustion, the fears and the worries. He saw a 26-year-old turn 27 and no longer need an infusion port. He was with me when I hit the one year mark and could finally call myself a ‘survivor.’ He saw me move towns and regions, change jobs and advance in my career. He watched as I stopped coming by myself to our appointments and started bringing my boyfriend who is now my husband. And it was a special day to show up to my milestone 10 year appointment with our three-month-old son, Joshua. Through it all, Dr. Mendelsohn’s been there to continue checking off the years with me.”
On her advice to others going through this journey:
- This is not the worst thing that will ever happen to you. It will be hard, it will define all life that comes after it, but you can do it!
- Cling tight to the people around you and let them love you. They are hurting and confused too, so taking care of you and walking this road with you let’s them heal.
- Take it slow, give yourself grace and listen to your doctor.
- Chemo brain is a real thing. Just go with it and use it to your advantage; I still do!