By Wendy Gragg
Killeen Daily Herald
Clad in a DC T-shirt and DC hat, Austin Moss strolled into the pediatric unit at Scott & White Hospital last week, CD player and headphones in hand. Skateboarding is Austin's thing, as his brand of clothing advertises, but his tall, broad build suggests he might fit in just as well on a high school football team.
What's hidden beneath Austin's cap is the absence of his once-thick, dark-blond hair – the only telltale sign that he is a patient. He's not a picture of strength, courage and grace.
He's just a 15-year-old kid. Austin has made regular trips from his Harker Heights home to the Temple hospital over the past few months, since a doctor spoke four difficult words to his mother.
"Your son has lymphoma."
"To hear someone tell you your child has cancer, that's the most devastating thing you can hear," said Austin's mom Jennifer, 34.
That first diagnosis, made on April 13, began for Jennifer a spiraling journey of worry, about everything from her son's life to the mounting medical bills. But there is one thing that keeps her grounded – Austin.
"Your attitude during this is everything – to everyone," Austin said.
Austin was goofing around one night, flexing his muscles when his mom noticed something strange – an egg-sized knot that protruded from the right side of his neck.
"I thought, What in the world is that?' It really scared me," Jennifer said.
A visit the next day to the Metroplex Emergency Room and a CT scan showed two swollen lymph nodes in the chest and an enlarged spleen. A biopsy three days later removed the lump and a lymph node, but confirmed Jennifer's biggest fear.
"The doctor said ... Your son has lymphoma.' I don't even remember anything else after that," Jennifer said.
If there's anything Jennifer regrets, it's how she told her son about the lymphoma. While he was still in the recovery room, she leaned close and told him it was cancer.
"One tear fell down his cheek and that was it, and that's the only time he cried," she said.
Austin remembers his mom telling him. He said his first thought was, "I'm thirsty."
It took two weeks to find out whether it was Hodgkins or non-Hodgkins lymphoma – two weeks that she and her husband spent at the library trying to figure out which form of lymphoma it would be better to have.
In the U.S., several hundred pediatric patients are diagnosed with Hodgkins lymphoma annually, said Dr. Dick Suh, Austin's doctor and a specialist in pediatric hematology/oncology. The good news is that Hodgkins has a greater than 90 percent survival rate. And Austin is doing very well.
"He's setting the standard for how to go through something like this," Suh said.
Austin began chemotherapy May 4, the day he turned 15. Through a port in his chest, the chemotherapy drugs are delivered and make the rounds through his system, killing cancer cells and helping to shrink tumors. Austin said during his chemo is the only time he even thinks about his disease.
"It was important from the beginning not to do anything to let this change me," Austin said.
Jennifer said in the beginning, she found herself catering to Austin because of the lymphoma, but he wouldn't have it. She said he hasn't complained once and has made it a point to maintain as normal a life as possible.
"He always tells me, Mom, I'm gonna be fine, I know I am,'" she said.
Austin was pulled from his Eastern Hills Middle School classes toward the end of last year, as he got started on his chemo. And Jennifer made sure she was available to be with her son during his three-day bouts of treatment.
Last week, the two took a rare break from each other as Austin headed off to Scott & White's Camp Dreamcatcher at Camp For All, near Brenham. Though reluctant to go, by Friday, Austin said it had been the best week of his life.
"That camp is really special – it means a lot more than just camp," he said.
At Camp Dreamcatcher, children and teens with cancer and blood disorders spend the week doing typical camp activities – swimming, fishing, kayaking, etc. – under the watch of Scott & White staff and volunteers.
Outside of Cabin 11, Austin, fingernails painted dark purple, picked out a White Stripes song on his acoustic guitar. His fast new friend, Garrett Harkins, 15, played an impressive "Fur Elise,"
the popular name of a music solo for piano by Ludwig van Beethoven, written in 1810.
Austin, in his signature calm, dry tone, said he was glad his mom made him go to camp.
"This place is just more comforting, to know you're not the only one," he said. Austin wants to return to the camp as a counselor, and his doctor says that's a great idea.
"He's a great role model for all our other patients," Suh said. "I think all of us can learn a lot from courageous souls like him."
In the meantime, Austin is looking forward to his first year at Harker Heights High School. Dr. Suh said Austin should be wrapping up his chemotherapy treatment around the start of school and from there, they will determine if he needs radiation treatment.
Jennifer knows Austin is doing well and is pleased that the rounds of chemo are coming to an end, but even that incites its own fear in her.
"At the same time you think, Are you sure they got it all? Is it safe to stop the chemo?'," she said.
No treatment, more treatment, whatever life puts in front of him – Austin said he's ready for it.
"I think anything that's thrown at me, I can take," he said.
Contact Wendy Gragg at email@example.com