Dominic Austin’s story is all too similar to that of many other Black men.
The former Indianapolis Colts player almost let the way he looked externally dictate how his body was feeling internally. The athlete, who had always been in good shape, finally realized that enough was enough, after his unexplained fever and fatigue began to plague him.
Something just wasn’t right.
It wasn’t until days before his 39th birthday in 2014 that he received the prognosis: he had stage-three non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
Shortly after his diagnosis, the Houston native started Tackles4Cancer, a non- profit organization that helps tackle cancer and raises awareness for those in need of financial and emotional assistance while fighting cancer.
In this interview with ESSENCE, Dominic Austin shares his inspiration behind Tackles4Cancer, how fellow Houston native Beyoncé has gotten involved and what other Black men can do to prioritize their health.
You’ve used your story to help inspire other people in their individual battles with cancer. Initially however, you didn’t want anyone to know about your diagnosis. What changed?
It was a journey for me to figure out what was going on internally. Once I was able to go through a thorough examination, that within itself was a lot for me to digest. I never thought that it would be me. From the beginning, there were so many moments of uncertainty, and you start playing Internet doctor, wondering if you’re going to make it. I managed to share it with one friend about my diagnosis. Initially, I never planned to tell anybody. I just planned on getting through it. I shared it with one friend, and then I shared it with one of my sisters who ended up not being able to keep a secret, and that’s how the word got out. Once the word got out, it just started to feel like I was getting some sense of release because I was holding so much in internally. It helped me to share what I was going through with people who really cared about me.
What inspired you to launch Tackles4Cancer?
My treatment was scheduled to start and I had a pre-appointment, and it took about 30 minutes. And I was parked illegally. However, I did have a number of parking tickets that had accrued just from living in LA. I walked out of my doctor’s office the day before my treatment and my car was gone. So not only was I concerned about how my body was going to respond to the chemo, but I also had to figure out how I was going to get there. At that time, there were taxi cabs available and Uber and Lyft were just kicking off the ground. I made the decision to just walk the 2 ½ miles from my place to the hospital. That walk was one of the walks that I’ll never forget. With every step, I could feel myself walking away from who I used to be, and walking towards who I was going to become. Every few steps I had a few tear drops that would fall down because I was just so worried and anxious and not knowing what to expect. Once I made it to the actual hospital, and went into the infusion room —that was my second rude awakening. I had never been in that type of setting before. Being in that space with 25 strangers, where we are all receiving a cocktail to kill us and bring us back to life. A lot of people had their friends and family with them, and for me, it was just me. There was a young lady next to me, who was concerned about how she was going to get home from the treatment. And unfortunately, there wasn’t anything that I could do.
Once I got back home, I decided that I wanted to do something that could impact the lives of patients. Something that could lift their spirits and ease the burden while they’re going through treatment, and ease the impact. The more research I did, I found that 1 out of 5 cancer patients will delay their treatment or cancel because they don’t have a ride. It was one of those moments when you take a step outside of yourself. I looked at it introspectively, that I was one of those 5 people. There were moments I thought about cancelling. I wasn’t working and it was going to cost a lot of money. For all those folks who decide not to because they don’t have a ride — we want to be that vehicle to help them make it to remission road. That’s where we honed our mission: to improve the lives of cancer patients through transportation.
How did Beyoncé get involved with the organization?
She was one of the first people that I reached out to because I wanted someone to support what I was doing. And at the time I was starting the program, I was going through treatment, and even I needed a pick me up. Being from Houston and then having plans to doing the On The Run Tour stop in Los Angeles, I reached out to her and I was blown away by the support that they showed, and have continued to show. Along with just a host of other celebrities and media personalities who have supported us and seen the value in what we do. We’re just in our fourth year, and things are going to continue to grow and impact the lives of even more patients. We’re starting to get a lot more engagement within the community.
You mentioned that it was a release for you once you were able to share the news with someone else. What advice do you have for Black men who don’t make their health — both physical and mental — a priority? And why do you think that is?
If it hadn’t been for the opportunity to share my story, and try to spark the nerve of other Black men to get their prostate exam, and their cancer check up. Encouraging someone by being a vessel is a way that I started to look at and take the focus off of myself. What that enabled me to do by empowering others, and sharing my stories, it helped me heal internally. We want to be the tough guy, but there can be underlying issues in relation to why you’re not sharing. For me, I didn’t think that people cared enough for me to mention it. I should just go through it on my own. Whatever is within the mind of African American men, you just have to think about the big picture, your overall health and wellbeing, who it impacts, and how it improves your quality of life by just sharing your struggles with someone else. Whether it’s your friend, a teacher, God, your coach, social media — it is a huge part of healing. A bigger part than most people realize. I highly encourage it and recommend it. Sometimes we experience so many different things and are trying to be everything to everybody. We put ourselves last and hide behind a mask that does add value to our lives.
On the outside we appear to be strong, grown men, but in regards to our health behind the mask, we are boys. Boys have to rely on someone else to help you whenever you get sick or go to the doctor. Part of being a man is managing your own health and well being and not expecting anyone else to do it for you.