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Susie Austin: Two-Time Cancer Survivor Ready to Help Kids in Their Own Fight

Publication: Dallas Morning News, Dallas, TX 

How an overheard conversation led to founding a nonprofit to lift young spirits

Six years after a diagnosis of breast cancer and a lumpectomy to beat the disease, Susie Austin received the bad news for a second time.

"In March 2015, I found a small lump in my breast, but I figured it was probably just tissue changing and hardening from the radiation six years ago," she said. "You're hoping it's not what you think it is."

The lump continued to grow, and Austin scheduled a mammogram in May. The doctors told her everything looked fine and concurred that it was just a bunch of tissue. By August, however, the lump was larger and Austin knew something was wrong. Her surgeon scheduled a biopsy, which confirmed cancer two days later.

Austin's first occurrence was ductal breast cancer, the most common type, and the tumor was small. This time, the tumor was very large, about 7 centimeters, or 2.8 inches, and she was at stage IV when it was diagnosed.

"And it was in the same breast," she said. "At that point I was pretty devastated and scared. It was too big to operate, so they put me on chemo in October. I was just praying that it hadn't spread anywhere else."

After four treatments, the tumor shrank to about 5 centimeters, or 2 inches. Austin's breast was removed in January, and she underwent six more rounds of chemo. Radiation was recommended.

"I went to a radiation oncologist and she said she couldn't give me normal radiation because I had it previously," Austin said. "I had a 25 percent chance of it actually burning through my chest wall and maybe burning my lungs and heart."

The doctor suggested a treatment relatively new to Dallas. It's a more precise form of radiation called proton therapy, which delivers targeted radiation to tumors with protons instead of traditional X-rays, while minimizing damage to the surrounding healthy tissue. Austin was referred to Dr. Jared Sturgeon at Texas Center for Proton Therapy to receive this advanced form of treatment.

"When I saw Dr. Sturgeon, he was very reassuring," Austin said. "He walked me through proton therapy and said only a small percentage of my organs would be affected because they're able to more accurately pinpoint where the radiation will go and how deep.

"The center was very inviting," she said. "You could go in and relax. They had coffee, tea, anything you needed. There were other patients across from you that you could interact with."

The waiting area was often filled with children because proton therapy is beneficial to patients whose bodies are still developing. In addition to sparing healthy, growing tissue, proton therapy's extraordinary precision means it has fewer side effects than other treatments.

When Austin was undergoing her 20th treatment, her husband, Eric, heard a girl who looked to be about 2 years old ask her mother if the treatment was going to hurt. Then she asked her mother if she was going to die.

"It broke my husband's heart," Austin said. "We got home and he said, 'We are doing something for these kids. I don't care what we do, but we're doing something.'"

That's when the Courageous Kids Project was born. The idea is simple: to provide children with toys and games to distract them while awaiting treatment. The Austins hope to work directly with Texas Center for Proton Therapy Certified Child Life Specialist Kara Landrum to check with families of pediatric patients about their interest in the Courageous Kids Project.

"I can't imagine what it's like to be that young and worrying about death or pain, so our goal is to surprise children with something they really want and can look forward to," Austin said.

The organization has been granted 501(c)(3) status and should be fully established as a nonprofit by the 30th of this month.

Austin added, "You always ask what you can do and how you can give back, and this was our answer."

– Steven Lindsey

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