FEEL GOOD | ‘Dirtbarbie’ cuts her hair for cancer wigs, insists she'll beat rare terminal diagnosis

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Keel has been diagnosed with Neuroendocrine Small Cell Carcinoma with Paraneoplastic Syndrome, a rare, aggressive cancer that started as lung cancer.
Keel has been diagnosed with Neuroendocrine Small Cell Carcinoma with Paraneoplastic Syndrome, a rare, aggressive cancer that started as lung cancer.
  • Sandi Pitchers Keel aka "Dirtbarbie" has been diagnosed with Neuroendocrine Small Cell Carcinoma with Paraneoplastic Syndrome, a rare, aggressive cancer.
  • She cut off her 58cm hair and donated it to Cansa before the chemotherapy and radiation process began. 
  • Doctors at firsts told her she only had a year to live.  

A Johannesburg woman has cut off all her hair for cancer wigs as she undergoes chemotherapy and radiation after being diagnosed with Neuroendocrine Small Cell Carcinoma with Paraneoplastic Syndrome, a rare, aggressive cancer that started as lung cancer.

Sandi Pitchers Keel, 58, was a member of the motorcycling community for 18 years and would spend much of her time racing 1 000cc powerful superbikes, taking on national Supermoto, enduro, cross-country and a bit of MX racing. She's also conquered the legendary KTM 500.

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After a freak bike accident last year, the daredevil is gearing up to take on her biggest challenge yet - a rare cancer diagnosis.

Speaking to News24 just hours before her chemotherapy session, Keel recalled that in December last year, while travelling to the Eastern and Western Cape to ride the magnificent passes, was where her life changed.

hair
Keel after her chopping off her luscious locks.
Photo Supplied

"My riding partner accidentally drove into the back of my bike just outside Gariep Dam. The physical injuries I gained didn't seem serious, so I gave myself about 10 days to recover at my sister's house in Jeffreys Bay, before making the three-day journey back to Johannesburg," she said.

Keel recalled that a month after her accident, or "naps", as she likes to call them, she was admitted to Mulbarton Hospital after a weekend spent coughing, vomiting, and eventually throwing up blood. 

"To help increase my sodium levels, I was placed on a drip that made my arm swell severely. Doctors administered an intravenous antibiotic that sent me into anaphylaxis shock to reduce the swelling, which put my life in jeopardy."

racing
Keel was a member of the motorcycling community for 18 years and would spend much of her days racing.
Photo Supplied

Having to recover from the traumatic experience and rebuild her life, she was given a double blow earlier this year when she landed up at Donald Gordon Hospital in Johannesburg, where she had to undergo three debridement operations on her arm where her drip was placed, as well as a gastroscopy which revealed an extensive infection from malnutrition. 

After doctors ran a series of blood tests, they realised the root of her symptoms for which she was initially admitted. 

"I stopped in my tracks when doctors diagnosed me with Neuroendocrine Small Cell Carcinoma with Paraneoplastic Syndrome. It's a rare, aggressive cancer that starts as lung cancer," Keel said.

hair
Sandi's hair before it all got chopped off.
Photo Supplied

She would need to stay in the hospital for 30 days under doctors' supervision.

She happily recalls an incident where she snuck out of her hospital bed and met her sister Tracy in the parking lot, who was waiting with the engine running.

"I'm a rebel at heart. We made a quick getaway to IamBrett salon to trade my trademark platinum locks into a 'short and sassy' grey hairdo to create wigs for The Cancer Association of South Africa (Cansa)," she said.

"After having long blonde hair, which so many admired, it was indeed my crowning glory. I knew that the journey ahead would see me losing it. So I thought, why waste it when it can be put to good use to help those cancer patients that need wigs for their cancer journeys. It was an easy decision to make." 

After chopping off her locks around the corner from the salon at Cansa, Keel said she returned to the hospital and a shocked staff.

"I was instantly forgiven for my 'misdemeanour', of course. The hospital staff never had an AWOL patient before, but you know… with me around, there will always be a first time for everything," she says with a giggle.

'My cup runneth over'

The adrenaline junkie said she coined the name Dirtbarbie from her girlfriend and guy friends because of her blond hair and massive dirtbikes she rode, which would always leave dust everywhere. 

When she was discharged from the hospital, she said an oncologist told her that she had less than a year to live and that she should live her life to the fullest. 

Not accepting the verdict and the low chance of survival she was given, she sought a second opinion.

Keel said: 

When you give me limitations, I will prove you wrong. Here's a news flash. I don't accept it; he isn't the author of my destiny.

After meeting with a cardiologist, she was given the go-ahead for a specialised treatment recommended by medical and radiation oncologists that have shown promising results.

Unfortunately, the treatment does pose a risk to her genetic heart condition, known as Marfan syndrome, which affects connective tissue.

Radiation could dilate her already enlarged aorta further, for which she will need to be monitored carefully.

To treat Keels tumours, doctors have mapped out an extensive plan consisting of chemotherapy and 33 consecutive radiation sessions, which should conclude next month if all goes well. 

hair
The hair Keel chopped off.
bike
She's known as the 'Dirtbarbie' for the many dirtbikes she's driven over the years.
bikes
Sandi on one of the many bikes she's driven over the years.

Unfortunately, her medical aid does not cover certain medical bills, and to cover the hefty costs of her treatment, a crowdfunding campaign has been launched on BackaBuddy to appeal for public support, as Keel is currently unemployed and requires assistance with her monthly expenses.

Unable to work due to illness has made it difficult for her to cover the cost of her medical bills, fuel to and from treatments, as well as a stipend for her sister, who has given up her life in the Western Cape to care for her during this challenging period. 

Since the campaign's launch, more than R87 500 has been raised, and R200 000 is required to cover all expenses. 

"I cannot begin to explain my gratitude for those who have supported me. The outpouring of genuine love and encouragement has touched me at the core of my being, and I am humbled. Some days tears slip out of my eyes when I think of all the help I've gotten. My cup runneth over," said an emotional Keel. 


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