Reyanna Putnam has faced cancer and beaten it … twice. Next, she wants to help other kids by becoming a pediatric oncologist. And the college junior is well on her way to achieving that.
The Akron native and Firestone Community Learning Center graduate is the first recipient of the 33 JordynStrong Survivor Scholarship. The Canton-based foundation awarded Reyanna $5,000 toward her studies at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, N.C.
33 JordynStrong honors the memory of Jordyn Myers, who at 13 years old lost her battle with leukemia. Among other programs, the foundation awards scholarship money to leukemia survivors.
The first inkling something was wrong with Reyanna was at age 12 during basketball practice when her coach noticed her neck was swollen. She was also feeling spells of lightheadedness and fatigue.
She initially was taken to Akron Children’s Hospital Health Center, Medina for evaluation, and it wasn’t long until her parents were being called and an ambulance was taking her downtown. Blood work confirmed the Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL) diagnosis.
“At first I didn’t know what cancer was and why everyone was so sad about it,” she said.
Next came two-and-a-half years of treatment, including chemotherapy up to three times per week at its peak. But Reyanna responded. On Aug. 4, 2015 she was cancer-free.
Cancer’s back. Round 2.
Reyanna started her freshman year of high school that year and got back into the sports she loved – volleyball and basketball. But wouldn’t you know that winter … at basketball practice again … the swollen neck symptom re-appeared. A biopsy confirmed the cancer was back.
“These were supposed to be my fun years with my friends and that kind of messed things up,” she said.
This time, the treatment plan called for a bone marrow transplant. Complications with donors foiled that plan. She was also prescribed new treatment drugs – with mixed results – and battled a life-threatening infection. Ultimately, she was given a stem cell transplant. Once again she responded well.
“I can count on my hands the number of days I wasn’t in the hospital that year,” she said.
Cancer-free 4 years and counting
Four years later and Reyanna is thriving. The second cancer diagnosis may have derailed some people, but it fueled a passion inside Reyanna to push herself to achieve aggressive goals in life.
“My support system didn’t let me give up on myself,” she said.
An ambitious freshman course load in college coupled with some college credits she earned in high school helped advance Reyanna to a junior academic status as she begins her second year in college. She’s studying biology with a minor in chemistry.
Her ultimate goal? To become a pediatric oncologist like her mentor, Akron Children’s Dr. Steven Kuerbitz.
“I feel like people shy away from that specialty because of the sadness involved,” she said. “But it was my oncologist and the care he showed that got me to where I am today. I feel like I can help a lot of people facing the same battle.”
Dr. Kuerbitz recalls Reyanna as a fighter who was never hesitant to express her feelings or disagree with him on what would or wouldn’t happen on any given day.
“I think it’s possible that such headstrong tenacity has served her well,” Dr. Kuerbitz said. “She set her sights on her goals – first leukemia, then relapsed leukemia, then bone marrow transplantation – and never said ‘Well, maybe not.’ She is doing the same with her career goal, and I know better than to bet against her.”
Also helping her reach her career goals is the 33 JordynStrong Foundation.
“Their name will forever live on in everyone they help,” she said. “I honestly appreciate them so much.”
The care and treatment she received during her two cancer battles isn’t lost on Reyanna either.
“Akron Children’s has played a humongous role in my life,” she said. “They’re like a third home or family to me. I’ve formed so many great relationships with the doctors and nurses there.”