Cancer Survivor Shares Story of Triumph and Graduates with Class of 2018

May 18, 2018

When Ashanti Pitts entered the South Atlantic Conference Seventh-day Adventist Convention Center on Saturday, her laughter and tears symbolized a journey of triumph, strength and determination. 

Her matriculation at Claflin was filled with challenges that many college students would hardly envision.

In 2010, after noticing a lump on her right foot that was unbearably painful, the Orangeburg native was diagnosed with a giant cell tumor of the bone during her senior year of high school.

After seeking medical attention, Ashanti underwent surgery to remove the benign tumors from her right foot and was ordered to wear a medical walking boot for three months.

"I felt defeated, because most of my classmates were planning for life after high school and I was dealing with a health scare that I thought would end my dreams of attending college," she said.

Despite her illness, an impressive audition for the Claflin University Concert Choir earned Ashanti a scholarship as a music major. Eager to begin her college years, she arrived on Claflin's campus ready to sing with the choir, begin her studies in music and enjoy the college life.

Shortly after arriving to Claflin, she again experienced pain and swelling in her right foot. Ashanti and her mother Kenita D. Pitts, a 2013 Claflin grad, traveled to the Medical University of South Carolina Children's Hospital in Charleston.

Kenita was also attending Claflin through the Center for Professional and Continuing Education. After being examined by a MUSC specialist, they were told the unimaginable: the tumors had reappeared, traveled to her lungs and heart valves, and were cancerous.

"I never thought or imagined that I would be sitting with my beautiful daughter in a room filled with cancer-stricken children who were so full of hope," Kenita said.

In October 2010, Ashanti was forced to withdraw from Claflin as she focused on her battle with cancer.

"Moving out of my dorm room, leaving my friends behind and being forced to quit the concert choir left me feeling confused and depressed," Ashanti said. "Music was all that I knew and loved. I believed my dreams of earning a college degree were crushed."

Ashanti's treatments included countless surgeries for reappearing foot tumors and growing tumors in her lungs that affected her breathing. She also underwent chemotherapy and radiation treatments that caused hair loss, body blistering and severe second-degree burns that left her confined to a wheel chair.

Determined to achieve her goal of earning a college degree, Ashanti completed rigorous breathing therapy and physical therapy before her oncologist released her to return to Claflin in the fall of 2012.

Although she could return to school, Ashanti was advised not to continue singing in the choir because of the risk that aggravating the remaining tumors on her lungs would cause other health issues. When she returned to Claflin, Ashanti changed her major to sociology.

"I was so nervous coming back because it felt like starting all over again," Ashanti said. "Although I did not know what to expect the second time around, being back on campus gave me a sense of normalcy and allowed me to overcome the depression I had experienced. I was determined more than ever to finish what I started."

Ashanti's ultimate recovery also inspired her mother to finish her degree.

"Every day I wanted to quit and just focus on her. She just would not allow it. Her strength is amazing and inspirational," said Kenita, who graduated summa cum laude with a dual degree in sociology and criminal justice.

The bond between mother and daughter grew even closer after Ashanti and Kenita joined Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc. Both are active in campus events and in the Orangeburg community.

"My road to graduation was unique and it was not easy. I am humbled to be here, and I can smile because I am a cancer survivor," said Ashanti, who plans to attend graduate school and pursue a career as a rehabilitative counselor. "I hope the story of my journey will inspire others to persevere - despite the obstacles and challenges - to achieve their goals."

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