There’s nothing funny about cancer and brain tumors—unless you’re Austin Muñoz.
Laughter—along with chemotherapy, physical therapy and a specialized diet—is one of the ways the 16-year-old Moorpark High School student is battling his two inoperable yolk sac, mixed malignant brain cell tumors, first detected in early July.
“Comedy is the spice of life. I can find comedy in anything,” Austin said.
But it hasn’t always been so easy to laugh. The day he was rushed to the hospital after projectile vomiting and suffering a seizure at home, for example, was no laughing matter.
On July third, he and his mother headed up to Santa Barbara and Austin complained a bit of a headache, but he was tired and they figured it was just a result of that. He slept a bit on the ride and his mom thought nothing of it. School had recently let out and he was on a vacation from football practice—he plays offensive right guard for the Musketeers—so it was natural the high school student wanted to catch up on some rest.
A couple of days later, Austin went to the beach with his friends and ended up getting a very bad sunburn. When his headache continued and he felt even more tired, he and his mother thought the sunburn might be the culprit.
But the next few days brought symptoms that increasingly alarmed them. He began to sleep more and more hours. His headaches were getting worse and his eyes became very sensitive to light. Miller decided to make a doctor’s appointment for Austin, fearing meningitis or even West Nile virus, as a case had just been detected in a dead bird in Moorpark. His seizure hit before they ever got a chance to get the blood tests results from the doctor.
He and his mother were alone in their home when the six-foot, 200-plus-pound football player, who had been standing near the kitchen table, went stiff and began to fall backwards. Reacting quickly, his mother threw her small frame behind him and held him up while dialing 911. Austin doesn’t remember it. He doesn’t remember anything until the paramedics were taking him down the stairs of his and his mother’s second-story home.
At the hospital, doctors ran blood tests and wanted to do a spinal tap, Miller said, but she was hesitant. While she debated whether to allow it, the doctors ran a CAT scan and found the tumors. One, in his pituitary gland, was about the size of a dime. The one behind it, between the third and fourth ventricles, was about five and a half centimeters. Had she allowed the spinal tap, it may have caused brain damage due to the pressure it would have caused, Miller said.
“Thank God I followed my instinct,” Miller said. It’s something she continues to do with his care.
On some advice, Miller decided to send Austin to Children’s Hospital Los Angeles; not such an easy task—especially on the weekend the 405 freeway was scheduled to close—but she got some unlikely help. Through Miller’s network of friends and contacts, the Duke of Hazard’s John Schneider stepped in and helped get Austin into the hospital.
“When I was younger, I thought, ‘Oh he’s so cute,’ and now John Schneider just saved my child’s life,” Miller said, recalling her thoughts at the time.
Once at CHLA, doctors operated and put a drainage tube in Austin’s head to remove pressure. By then, Austin’s hearing was affected and the seizure had left his right side paralyzed so Miller, a fitness professional, began some exercises with Austin even before the physical therapists came to work with him.
After his first sets of chemotherapy treatments—he is scheduled for six weeks of it followed by a month of radiation treatment—the tumor in Austin’s pituitary gland is gone and the other has shrunk from 5.5 to 2.8 centimeters. Doctors have told Miller there is an 85 to 90-percent success rate for the chemotherarpy/radiation program.
Austin is home now and is using the right side of his body. He has a scar, which he refers to as his "shark bite," on the top of his mostly hairless head and tires easily still, but a stranger might never guess he’s fighting a battle inside. Though he admits to having a few “pity party days,” he calls the down times and harder moments "speed bumps" and gets past them with a certain mindset and help from those close to him.
“It’s the football mentality of ‘Never quit,’ ” he said. “I’ve never been a quitter and I get a lot of strength from my family, my friends and my nephew, especially.”
Another inspiration for Austin were some of the children at the hospital who had it even worse and he knew he had to keep fighting what he’s come to refer to as his asteroids (like in the 1979 video game, where the player shoots and destroys asteroids, chipping away at them until they’re gone). His hope is to become an inspiration to the children there as well.
Already, Austin is serving as an inspiration to the people of Moorpark—who are following his progress on an Austin's Asteroids Facebook page created by his family—and the community is rallying to support him. To help the family cover costs, there will be a silent auction from 5 to 8 p.m. Oct. 6 at Café Firenze. Presale tickets are $45. Tickets will be $50 at the door. For more information, visit the Talbert Family Foundation’s website page for Austin or call Cindy McCormack at 805-796-7118.
As well, a number of Moorpark businesses are hosting fundraisers to benefit Austin. For specifics and fliers for each fundraiser, visit the Talbert Family Foundation website. Following is a list of businesses and the dates on which they’ll donate a portion of their sales:
– Sept. 25
– Sept. 25-Oct. 2
– September 26
– Sept. 26 and Oct. 1
– Sept. 26-30
– Sept. 26
– Sept. 27
Greenhouse Café (652 E. Janss Road, Thousand Oaks) – Sept. 27-28
– Sept. 27
– Sept. 28
Pizza & More – Sept. 28
– Sept. 29-Oct. 1
– Oct. 1-2
– Oct. 1
Egg House (1470 E. Los Angeles Ave., Simi Valley)– Oct. 3