Dena Austin and Joe, high school sweethearts 30 years ago, have been reunited after Austin’s husband died of a heart attack. They reconnected through social media and Austin has moved from Las Vegas to Middletown. SUBMITTED PHOTO
Photo: Kelly Ann Settle
Photo: Kelly Ann Settle

McCrabb: This powerful woman buried her teen son and husband, then beat breast cancer

She sought a new life. Four years after her husband, Brent, a corrections officer in Las Vegas, died of a heart attack at 42, Austin moved to Middletown in September 2017.

She had a relationship with Joe Stugmyer, her sweetheart when they attended high school in California, and was closer to her daughter, Taylor, who earned a softball scholarship to Kentucky Christian University.

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For the first time in years, mother and daughter were happy.

Then cancer raised its ugly head. Talk about a challenge.

Austin’s story involves multiple blows, any one of which could have been nearly impossible to overcome. But her perseverance through deaths, cancer and the personal struggles that come with them combine for a powerful story, the type that should be celebrated in our community.

Dark times came first. During a self-examination in the mirror, she noticed a flattening in her right breast. Needing to establish care in the Middletown area, she called Hilltop OB-GYN. From there she had a mammogram at The Women’s Center at Atrium Medical Center that turned into a four-hour series of tests, including an ultrasound and a diagnostic mammogram.

Dena Austin, 48, knew losing her hair would be part of her chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer. Her hair returned during radiation. SUBMITTED PHOTO
Photo: Staff Writer

The palpable mass on the side of her right breast was a 7-centimeter tumor, diagnosed at Stage 2. After discussing her options with Dr. Heather Adkins, Austin chose to do 16 chemotherapy treatments over 20 weeks. The first four treatments included the high-powered dye that has earned the nickname “Red Devil.”

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It makes most patients “instantly sick” and Austin said it changed the way food tasted.

After choosing her cancer protocol, Austin faced her toughest challenge yet: telling her daughter. Just four years earlier, their happy family of four had been cut in half.

“How am I going to tell my daughter?” Austin asked herself. “I can’t tell this wonderful girl, who has lost her father and her brother, yet has always persevered, that her mother has cancer.”

Her oncology nurse navigator at Atrium, Phyllis Rudokas knew what to say.

“Don’t sugarcoat it,” she advised. “Focus on the facts. Tell her, ‘They are treating me to cure me.’”

Adkins and Austin’s oncologist, Dr. Radhika Rajsheker, ordered four rounds of chemotherapy, followed by a lumpectomy in June 2018.

After surgery, Austin endured 12 more rounds of chemotherapy and 36 rounds of radiation.

She said Stugmyer and his family proved to be an invaluable support system, as did her out-of-town family and friends, who called every day to encourage her.

After she received the last cancer treatment, Austin rang the bell in the chemotherapy department “loud and proud” because “that bell is hope.”

During those treatments, Austin lost her hair, her feet swelled, her fingernails discolored, and she got the shingles. She pulled up one photo on her cell phone and said she looked “a little jacked up like a prize fighter.”

The arduous treatments proved well worth it when post-treatment testing showed no evidence of disease.

Austin has been told that she may have had the breast cancer for five years. She wonders if she could have handled the diagnosis and the treatments while she was caring for her son with mental and physical disabilities.

“That would have been the final blow,” she said. “God’s timing is perfect even though we don’t like it. He waited until I was taken care of.”

Beating cancer is just one chapter Austin’s life.

She and her husband tried to make life as normal as possible for their son Bo and his younger sister. Bo was born on Aug. 21, 1997, his mother’s birthday. He was born four months premature and never advanced beyond the developmental age of 1. He weighed 1 pound, 13 ounces.

His parents held vigil over him for the 122 days he was in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.

He died in 2011 at the age of 14, living far longer than doctors anticipated.

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Bo’s death took its toll on his father.

“He never was the same,” Austin said. “It changed him deeply. Every day he woke up, it was the day Bo died. He was just sad.”

Eighteen months later the family experienced another cruel blow — this time unexpected — when Brent suffered a heart attack at home and died while Dena and Taylor were in California for a softball tournament.

She learned of her husband’s death after talking to her family while she was sitting in the car with her daughter. They had just eaten dinner and were about to drive back to Las Vegas.

“Oh, Taylor,” she told her daughter. “‘I don’t want to break your heart again. Daddy died.”

Taylor started bawling.

“It was the saddest 4 1/2-hour drive ever. You are numb. None of it makes sense. Not one ounce of sense. Nothing. This was not happily ever after. I was angry at the time.”

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Thanks to social media, Austin and Stugmyer were reunited 25 years after high school. They exchanged messages for months until Stugmyer visited her in Las Vegas. The years melted away. They were teenagers again.

She sold her condo in Las Vegas and moved to Middletown. Her daughter got injured playing softball at Kentucky State and since transferred to UNLV.

Now Austin is working again, providing senior home care with Visiting Angels, and looking forward to spending more time with Stugmyer.

“God didn’t put Joe and me back together after 25 years for this to be the end of our story,” she said.

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