In the News

Kelly Pittman’s Story | Girl, Be Brave

As seen in SavvyKids, October 2019.

By Angela E. Thomas

Last fall, 3-year old Bennett jumped in his mom’s lap to play. The toddler accidently hit mom Kelly Pittman’s chest, unknowingly causing her a bit of unusual pain. He also unknowingly helped save Kelly’s life.

Kelly and Ben Pittman were pretty much living the American dream — Kelly works as a speech therapist, and Ben is a chiropractor with his own practice. They have “the house with the white picket fence,” two adorable children, daughter Austyn, 9, and son Bennett, 3. They take vacations, hang out with friends and family. Life was simply good.

Last fall, Kelly noticed the pain from Bennett’s bump wouldn’t go away. Then a lump appeared.

“We’re pretty active. I mean, we’ve always considered ourselves healthy. So I wasn’t alarmed. I called my OB-GYN, but we agreed that I could wait until my regular appointment in January,” Kelly said.

There was no cause for alarm: She’s 36 and has no family history of breast cancer. On Jan. 7, she went in for her annual exam and, though not overly concerned, her doctor scheduled her for a mammogram. The morning of the mammogram — Jan. 14, Kelly’s birthday — she almost rescheduled — the kids were back in school and her life was busy, but she decided to keep the appointment. The doctors did a mammogram, then a sonogram. Then they delivered the news: There was a 95 percent chance that her right breast had malignant tumors as well as two calcifications.

“I was speechless. When the doctor asked if I had any questions, all I could say was ‘It’s my birthday.’ I decided to hang on to the 5 percent chance that it wasn’t cancer.”

Ben had cleared his morning schedule and gone to the Jan. 14 appointment with Kelly; however, as quite a bit of time passed, he had to leave to see patients.

“I was with a patient when Kelly called, crying and said, ‘It doesn’t look good. They’re 95 percent sure it’s cancer.’”

Kelly’s doctor ordered a biopsy — 10 days away. In the meantime, the couple “played the waiting game.” They told Kelly’s mother and Ben’s parents, but decided to wait before telling anyone else. After all, Ben’s family was already dealing with the disease: His aunt and grandfather had recently been diagnosed with cancer.

Kelly was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer and her doctors decided an aggressive course of treatment: six months of chemotherapy and a mastectomy, which took place in August.

“We didn’t know what to expect,” Ben said. “I remember being scared of chemo. I had just seen my aunt lose her hair. I laid there thinking about what chemotherapy could do to Kelly and just got this sinking feeling. That call was a reality check. That’s when things really started to sink in.”

Ben and I had a pre-valentines dinner before my first chemo

“While Bennett was just 3 at the time, Austyn is a bright, intuitive girl. So when we saw my aunt and Austyn understood that she had cancer, she also knew it was life-threatening. She didn’t fully understand it or the severity of it, but we knew she’d be upset,” Ben said.

The couple understandably still gets emotional when speaking of the process overall.

“You know, sometimes I still get angry but I also see a lot of blessing. I felt I’d done everything right. I had my boy, my girl and my husband. You hear the word ‘cancer,’ and go straight to death. I was afraid it would take me away from being a mom,” Kelly said.

Today, the Pittmans say their family dynamic has changed.

Ben said, “This has actually been good for us — it hasn’t been easy, but it’s been good. My way of dealing with Kelly’s diagnosis and treatment has been to be task-oriented. What can I do to help Kelly?”

“My father has been my best friend for a long time. This was hard for him. However, I too think this has been good for me in a lot of ways,” Kelly said. “I’ve learned to delegate and ask for help.”

They are also transparent about the challenges that come with a cancer diagnosis and treatment. Ben has had to be Mom and Dad quite often, taking the kids for outings and doing things his wife usually did, balancing fatherhood with providing for his family as a business owner.

“I’ve felt a lot of stress, and at times I have been frustrated. I’m so thankful for Kelly’s mom — she’s been there every step of the way,” Ben said.

Kelly completed chemotherapy July 9 and is officially in remission. She is thankful for Drs. James Hagans and Rhonda Gentry and the staff at CARTI, all of whom she leaned on for treatment and care. She’s recently participated in Susan G. Komen’s Runway for the Cure and is raising money for this month’s More Than Pink Walk.

“Cancer has taught me to be calmer. I’m so grateful for a second chance to be a better parent. I’ve learned more about faith. Bennett prays each night — he prays for my hair, eyebrows and eyelashes,” Kelly said, laughing.

Ben added, “Cancer cuts through the BS. It makes things raw, and teaches you not to worry about the petty stuff. We’ve really learned to lean on each other.”

“We are more of a team now,” Kelly said.

Delivering Diagnosis to Children

For Kelly Pittman, telling her children of her breast cancer diagnosis was especially hard. “Telling Austyn was … awful. We waited until a Friday, so she’d have time to deal with it. We were very careful not to use the word ‘sick’ or to say ‘I wasn’t feeling well’ so she didn’t think it was contagious. We told her that what I was going through was similar to Aunt Debbie. She cried and screamed, ‘No! No! No!’ then she let it all soak in.”

However, as Austyn watched her mother undergo treatment, she realized cancer does not equate to death.

The American Cancer Society (ACS) suggests parents take into consideration their child(ren)’s age and maturity. Give them the name of the cancer, the body part that is affected and how it will be treated and explain how their lives will be impacted.

Additionally, it’s very important to tell your child when you’re calm and in a quiet area when and where you won’t be interrupted. The website also suggests that both parents or a grandparent or close adult friend be present.

Kelly’s decision to make sure Austyn understood cancer isn’t contagious was good, as children can often worry about this. Lastly, make sure you check in with your child(ren) often as they may have follow-up questions and need assurance.

Kelly’s son’s reaction was priceless.  “Bennett was a bit oblivious. After all he was only 3, but when I started losing my hair — after the second treatment — I had a friend come over with clippers to shave my head. We made a music video,” she said. “Bennett saw us and announced, ‘I want to do my hair like Mommy,’ so we cut a ribbon in his hair.”