Richard Crouse: Five years clear of cancer, but still feeling the peril
Just days after his 50th birthday in 2013, CTV's film critic Richard Crouse was booked for a routine colonoscopy. He thought it would be little more than a nuisance, but it wound up being a life-saver.
Now, six years later, Crouse shares for the first time his account of the moment he was diagnosed with cancer and the life-changing effects of that news.
In a series of columns exclusive to CTVNews.ca, Crouse chronicles his childhood as the son of a woman who died of cancer, his own surprise diagnosis and the intrusive treatment that followed, laying bare his eye-opening revelations, deepest fears and most vulnerable moments.
Catch up on the rest of Crouse's series:
- Part 1: The moment he heard 'We found a tumour'
- Part 2: The challenge of coming out to colleagues
- Part 3: 'Doing what I was told': The indignity of being hospitalized
- Part 4: 'You either have it or you don't': Keeping faith in cancer care
- Part 5: 'So, you're having chemo': On feeling kicked when he's down
- Part 6: Stepping into the void: An experience of chemotherapy
- Part 7: When the worst turns out to be good: Life in cancer care
The countdown to the end was excruciating but a trip to New York was the dangling carrot that made it bearable. Tickets were booked for Cabaret in April 2014 at the Roundhouse Theatre. I'm not a fan of musicals but Cabaret isn't a typical song and dance show.
There's a scene near the end of the show in which Sally Bowles makes her "triumphant" return to the Kit Kat club. The tragedy of the story has become apparent. Nothing works out for anyone and as the heartbreaking figure stands on stage singing the show's signature song it becomes clear that you don't want to be singer Sally Bowles. No, you want to be Elsie, her friend with whom Sally shared "four sordid rooms in Chelsea." Elsie may be dead and gone, but she left behind a potent message, "Start by admitting from cradle to tomb, it isn't that long a stay." Seems simple enough but sometimes clichés are clichés because they're true. It's a big, brassy song with a big, brassy, and to me, indispensible message.
But first there were a few more treatments. The side effects amplified as I got closer to the end but battery acid breath and neuropathy, I felt, were a small price to pay to be cancer-free. I'm grateful my hair didn't fall out and that I wasn't ill all the time, although, had that happened I would have found a way to deal with it. I learned from watching the other people in the wards, people with much larger problems than mine, and often, much better attitudes. Being ill breeds a dark sense of humour that helps people through the tough times and that was very much on display from the other patients I spoke with.
In March 2014, on the last day of my treatment, I wore a suit. Not sure why. It felt right and I guess I wanted to walk out of the hospital looking good if not exactly feeling good. When they attached the final to-go bottle I felt a weight lift. The worst was over. I felt like Usain Bolt in Beijing or what Tom Hanks must feel like everyday.
It was a long journey — a trip down a dark and twisty road. I wasn't at the end of the road just yet, but I could see the end. Soon I wouldn't feel like I lived in someone else's body, wake up exhausted everyday or fear the sinister tumour growing in me.
At that point I decided to go public with my story. I began to hear statistics that truly shocked me. (All stats correct as of the time of the writing of this diary.) 423 Canadians are diagnosed with colorectal cancer (CRC) every week. One in 14 men is expected to develop CRC during his lifetime and one in 27 will die of it. One in 15 women is expected to develop CRC during her lifetime and one in 31 will die of it. 175 Canadians, on average, die of this disease every week.
175 Canadians a week and I was almost one of them.
On March 19, I appeared on Canada AM to talk about colon cancer and how treatable it is. I was the regular film critic for that show, having appeared hundreds of times over twelve years, but this hit felt different. The day before, I called my father and told him the news. I hadn't shared it with him because he lived far away and I didn't want him to sit and stew about my health. I filled him in on what had happened and told him to expect phone calls from his friends who would inevitably get in touch after I spilled the news.
Essentially I gave the bullet points of the story and finished with, "This is my story, but it's not my message. I waited until after my treatment for my cancer coming out party because I didn't want pity. I didn't want to be viewed differently. I just want you to know that if this could happen to me, it could happen to you.
March, being Colon Cancer Awareness Month, seemed like the time to share my story. What I want now is for you to get tested. Colonoscopy is a big word, but it could have a huge effect on your well-being. Having one at age 50 saved my life and it could save yours. Make an appointment today. Your colon and I will thank you."
I underestimated the response. Thousands of comments poured in, offering prayers and positive thoughts but best of all, as a result of the story many people went and were tested. A life or two may even have been saved.
The story doesn't end with the final chemo treatment.
Read more on CTVNews.ca:
The trip to New York happened. Cabaret was amazing although I overestimated my resilience and spent one full day in bed, Saturday Night fever-style, unable to move. Despite the wasted day, the trip was rejuvenating.
A year later I told "Cabaret" star Alan Cumming the story of the trip and how the show was a motivator for me to heal. "That's lovely," he said. "Thank you for telling me that. I love being the carrot in that story."
Most of what you've just read was written during or just after my chemotherapy. The words simply poured out of me, partly as distraction from the treatment and partly, I assume, to help me wrap my mind around my cellular cleansing. Then, just as quickly as the writing started, it stopped. I couldn't figure out how to end this treatment diary so I left it unfinished, tucked away in my documents folder.
Time has given me some perspective on why the final chapter took so long to write. I think it's because every other book I've written has had an obvious conclusion, a climax that signals the end of the story. But telling my story when I didn't know the ending was a much different thing. The word cancer tends to stick to you, hanging over your head like the Sword of Damocles. I've been clear of cancer for five years but it still feels like an imminent and ever-present peril, always at the back of my mind. Was that a cough or throat cancer? Why am I tired all the time? Must be cancer. These are fleeting thoughts, the product of a diagnosis five tears ago that took me by surprise but they are still rooted in my mind, reminding me of how sudden news can change your life.
When I originally wrote that last sentence I used the term "bad news." Later I took out the word "bad" because for all the awful that came with the diagnosis — the chemo, the fear, the Saturdays spent glued to my bed — much good came from it as well.
I can honestly say I am a different person than I was before the fateful colonoscopy. I have learned to take a breath, be selfless and, to paraphrase the writer Colette, to acknowledge I have a wonderful life. I just wish I'd realized it before the cancer diagnosis. Andrea and I are now married and I have a new appreciation for the way she sings terrible 80s songs in the shower when she thinks I'm not listening or laughs a little bit too hard at Adam Sandler movies.
I'll stop short of saying our lives were enhanced by my diagnosis but I do credit cancer with allowing me to understand what's important and what isn't. The hard days made me stronger, more able to understand how to find the good in every day. It may make me sound a bit Pollyanna-ish but for me it's a lesson in not simply delineating life by the good times but by the sum total of our experience. Cancer does not define me but it helped me to find the way I define my life.
Here endeth today's lesson. I used to joke that I would never join any club who would have me as a member. But after chasing cancer to the curb I now feel like I'm part of a brotherhood and sisterhood that is so much larger than any one of us individually. I didn't want to join, nobody does, but as a card-carrying member I think it's my duty to lead by example. To urge people to get a colonoscopy so we can all share thousands of healthy tomorrows.
In previous instalments, Crouse shared the life-changing moment he first heard his diagnosis, the challenge of talking about his diagnosis with colleagues at work, the indignity of hospitalization and his struggle to keep the faith in cancer care. Crouse has also shared his candid thoughts on the difficulty of feeling kicked when you're already down, the dread of undergoing chemotherapy and how the worst thing that ever happened in his life turned out to be a good thing.
Richard Crouse shares a toast with celebrity guests and pundits on the talk show Pop Life on CTV NewsChannel and CTV. Catch up on all the entertainment news, reviews and interviews at the Pop Life website.
Read more of Richard Crouse's recent movie reviews:
- Does 'Avengers: Endgame' deserve all the hype?
- 'Teen Spirit' has universal messages for all
- Beautiful 'Missing Link' engages the eyes, but not the brain
- 'Shazam!' brings classic comic book zaniness to the big screen
- 'Dumbo' remake is pure Burton eye-candy
- 'Us' is gory, outlandish and resonates in Trump-era America
- 'Wonder Park' more poignant, heart-tugging than you'd expect
- 'Captain Marvel' is convoluted, cluttered and ... refreshing