March 23, 2017  

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Southern Miss Nursing Student Excels While Battling Breast Cancer

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Southern Miss nursing student Corey Auerswald was treated to a surprise party by her classmates recently. (Photo by Kelly Dunn)

The cancerous cells in Corey Auerswald’s body could not hold down the willpower of her spirit.

The joy in Auerswald’s spirit when people see or speak to her is contagious, touching people wherever she goes. Auerswald is now in her second semester in The University of Southern Mississippi nursing program, working to complete the rigorous nurse anesthetist program. She hopes to graduate in December.

Auerswald has seen her share of challenges as a registered nurse, but nothing could prepare her for becoming a victim of breast cancer. And her amazing spirit has never been more tested.

On Sept. 25, the College of Nursing held a surprise party in Auerswald’s honor. Many students and faculty, including Dr. Katherine Nugent, dean of the College of Nursing, and Auerswald’s best friend, Lauren Robertson, attended the party. Through the event, Auerswald saw how many lives that she touched just by her mere attendance in class.

“Everyone says that I am so inspiring, but I don't really feel that way,” Auerswald said. “Honestly, I got cancer but Lauren (and others) didn't have to help me do everything.”

The University also paid a special tribute to Auerwald by recognizing her accomplishments by making her an honorary captain for the Oct. 3 home football game against North Texas.

Auerswald’s nursing career did not start in Mississippi, but in Lake Village, Ark. The reasoning behind her decision to pick Southern Miss remains unknown to many people, besides her closest friend, Lauren Robertson, who was right there when Auerswald made her choice.

“Eventually we decided, hey, let’s go back to school,” Robertson said. “So we both applied for CRNA (Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist) school. We applied together and got in together.”

That commitment to travel with Auerswald is what gave their friendship new life. Robertson and Auerswald were close before, but now it reached a new height in their relationship. Both had already become nurses in Arkansas, and now, they were going to achieve greater things for their respective careers.

“She is sweet and super smart,” Robertson said. “She took the best care of her patients and everybody loved her.”

Auerswald is a wife, and a mother of a 2-year old, as well as being a full-time student at USM. Although she has many responsibilities, one thing that Auerswald has never done is complain or feel bad about any situation she has faced throughout her life.

The biggest challenge in Auerswald’s life was figuring out how to juggle school, and her home life with her husband, Chris, who’s an accountant, and her young son. Those responsibilities were enough for the CRNA nursing major, but one day changed her whole perspective on what was most important.

Taking a monthly breast exam is normal for most women. Doctors encourage the exam to be practiced at least once a month, depending on a woman’s developmental stages. Auerswald was no different. Every month she took her exam, but one month changed everything.

“Shortly into the first semester, she felt a lump,” Robertson said. “I said, ‘Oh Corey, it’s nothing. Don’t worry about it.’ ”

Last spring was a busy one for Auerswald. Her son was still in the swing of pre-school, her husband was financially carrying the burden of the household, and she had to make sure her grades were up to par. With all that in mind, she decided to go see a doctor for a regular check-up, after discovering the lump on April 18. With an upcoming test on the horizon, Auerswald and Robertson packed their things to go study for the exam while at the doctor’s office.

“We took our books for finals, and we were studying on the couch in the waiting room,” Robertson said. “She went back and she knew from the ultrasound what it looked like — it was breast cancer.”

The news did not end there.

“She had a biopsy a few days later, and it came back triple negative,” Robertson said. “It’s not responsive to any hormone therapies like some breast cancers are. It’s more aggressive.”

For Auerswald, the news could have crushed her. With all of the things in her life going on already, a deadly disease could have literally been the nail in the coffin. When Robertson learned of the news from the biopsy, she couldn't control her emotions.

“I got in my car, and I pulled over to the first parking lot, and I just sobbed,” Robertson said. “After that I told myself that she’s not crying, so why would I cry?”

That inspiring perseverance from Auerswald led to her getting through all of the treatments and chemotherapy, day by day. On May 21, she underwent surgery as part of the treatment plan. Unfortunately, like many cancer patients, Auerswald suffered negative side effects from the treatments.

“She started (chemotherapy) about six weeks after her surgery after she healed up pretty good,” Robertson said. “She did eight rounds of the chemo and lost all of her hair.”

In the midst of the trials of losing her hair, recuperating from surgery, studying for difficult exams and holding down a family home, Auerswald could have given up many times. She never once thought of surrendering.

“I didn't have an option, I wasn't going to quit,” Auerswald said. “Keep going, it will get better.”

The students in her classes helped her out in any way that they could. Some students gave her their notes, while others would record the lectures on their phones. But with modern technology, she was able to sit right in class with her fellow nursing students.

“She missed the first few days of the summer semester, but we Periscoped lectures to her,” Robertson said. “She has maintained a 4.0 GPA the entire time, and it’s been awesome.”

Her friends and family have supported her throughout the whole treatment process. One of her classmates, Leanne supported her by setting up a ‘Go-Fund Me’ page. The page has raised over $10,000 in just four months. The outgoing support through her page, combined with Facebook, help uplift Auerswald through her treatments and even in the classroom.

“I have to be strong for her and I have to help her,” Robertson said. “This is hard for me but it is so much harder on Corey.”

Auerswald received her first chemo treatment on June 12 at Forrest General Cancer Center in Hattiesburg. She was treated through the rest of the summer into the fall until her last treatment on Sept. 22.

That initial diagnosis last spring could have stricken Auerswald for life. It would have been easy for her to give up on her studies and her personal life, sulking in her diagnosis. That was not an option for her. Auerswald has shown such a valiant effort through every obstacle that even Dr. Vickie Stuart, Director of the Nurse Anesthesia Program, has seen her own life change.

“I have seen (her) inspire her classmates to rally around her and support her,” Stuart said. “I am so inspired by her to not let this diagnosis allow quitting to be an option for her.”

What makes Auerswald an inspiration to many people is the fact that she hasn’t let her sickness get her down. She has kept pushing through whatever treatment, therapy or class assignment that she has encountered.

“She makes everybody feel important, she makes everybody feel cared for,” Robertson said. “It makes me reevaluate how I treat other people.”

Auerswald’s relentless will and drive, help propel the entire College of Nursing to new heights. Now in the month of October, breast cancer is on the forefront of public awareness. Hopefully, the Southern Miss community can learn the meaning of perseverance from Auerswald’s fighting spirit.