'You either have it or you don't': Richard Crouse on keeping the faith in cancer care
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, in honour of Colon Cancer Awareness Month, 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 5: 'So, you're having chemo': On feeling kicked when he's down
- Part 6: Stepping into the void: My experience of chemotherapy
- Part 7: When the worst turns out to be good: Life in cancer care
- Part 8: Five years clear of cancer, but still feeling the peril
My Saturday mornings are sacred. Spring, summer, winter or fall they involve the same thing. Doing morning radio and television during the week plays havoc with my schedule so I lay around as much as possible on Saturday mornings, watching bad TV, doing crosswords and reading newspapers. Serious thoughts are outlawed and if it weren't a little too "Days of Wine and Roses" I'd probably drop a shot or two of Bailey's in my tea.
I was determined to make the Saturday following my surgery the same as the ones before it. I felt great or at least I thought I did. Thinking back I'm not sure if I was willing myself to feel good, or if I actually did feel good.
Either way, the sensation did not last.
After sipping my tea, filling out the crossword, bounding around the place and making plans to catch a matinee I found myself flat on my back, wracked with the kind of pain that suggests the agony of being squeezed in a giant vice. I went from motor mouth to a groaning mess, unable to form the words, "Help me, I think I may be dying." I wasn't sure if my colon had burst, spewing poison throughout my body, or if I had just experienced what an old friend of mine called a "serponzio," a total explosion of the internal organs. Whatever the case, I thought this was it. There was no white light, no choir of angels, just searing, punishing pain.
Unable to articulate to Andrea what was wrong she deciphered from my grunts that we wouldn't be going to see a movie today. Or maybe ever again. She dialled one of the emergency numbers we'd been given and after providing the voice on the other end of the line with a vivid and slightly panicked description of what was going on she seemed to calm down. She handed me some pseudo Hillybilly Heroin — Oxycontin has been replaced with the harder-to-abuse OxyNeo — which immediately put me into a netherworld state where pain was no longer an issue.
Later, when my head cleared of hallucinatory Oxy fever dreams I read that doctors inflate the abdomen during laparoscopic procedures so the tiny camera lenses they use to see what's what aren't covered. The result is severe gas pains but not simply in the colon or abdomen. The pressure created by the moving gas bubbles cause tremendous discomfort in your shoulders. In my case that's a couple of feet away from where the surgery happened. Because it seems unrelated to the area of trauma, it feels as though your body is shutting down but it is actually due to the nerve supplying the left shoulder that also supplies your diaphragm. Pressure on the diaphragm equals random pain elsewhere, teaching this patient that everything under the skin is connected in a way I had never contemplated before. Up until then my body had just worked and I hadn't given it much thought. Essentially I treated it like you would a horse. I fed it, took it out for a run every now and again, brushed its hair and when it felt bad I gave it medication.
Now I was confronted with the beginning of drug use to survive. Survive in the moment and the long term. At this point chemotherapy was something we hadn't really discussed. One doctor said he wasn't sure if it was necessary. Another was on the fence. I was hoping not to give myself over to a cocktail of poisons but for now that was up in the air.
More tangible was the sinking feeling that a couple of tablets here, an injection there, was going to play a big role in my immediate future.
On one follow-up visit to my surgeon I was told they had found a growth in my chest. "When we start poking around," he said, "we always find other things."
Great. I hadn't signed up for a two-for-one growth deal, but it seemed I got a bonus, underdetermined lump. In the short term it meant more doctor's appointments, this time with a thoracic surgeon at yet another hospital. All of my doctors — the surgeon, the oncologist and now the chest specialist — were at different hospitals in different parts of the city. Each hospital issued me an identification card, a hard plastic ID with an impossibly long number that for at least the next few months would take the place of my name. It felt I was entering a Kafkaesque nightmare with doctors chasing me down hospital hallways yelling my number. "13122642471! It's time to poke you with needles!" My wallet was swollen with these cards and soon, if things kept going the way they were I'd have a whole deck, enough to play poker with.
I used my newest plastic card for admittance to another hospital and another round of tests. Ultrasounds and X-rays revealed a tiny growth, probably part of my embryo that attached itself to my chest plate. I took to calling this remnant of my past Little Richard and imagined that one day if I didn't do something about it that it would burst out of my body, "Alien" style. I chose to think about it as a species rather than a fragment of tissue. It seemed more intriguing that way. Anyway, the doctor assured me Little Richard didn't present any real threat and I had more important things to concentrate on, like whether or not I would have to get chemotherapy.
My memories of chemo dated back decades to the barbaric bad old days of the 1970s and 80s when the process was not unlike attaching poisonous leeches to the patient. My mother's treatment stretched on for years and instilled a lifelong fear of the process in me. I never saw her actually get the medication but, as a child, I knew every time she got something called chemo she came home sicker than she went in. Tired. Pale. Hairless. Unhappy. The word quickly became a boogeyman for me, a villain not unlike a Brothers Grimm ogre. "If you're not good we'll send you to chemotherapy!"
My limited understanding of what my mother went through never left. As a child it didn't occur to me that it wasn't just the chemo that weighed on her but also the unfairness of cancer taking her away her prime. She knew she'd never see her sons grow old, marry and have kids. She knew she would never get to plan weekly bridge games with her friends or pass recipes down to her daughter-in-laws. Never get to volunteer at the church, or have a hobby.
I couldn't look into my mother's mind and her brave face didn't hint at the turmoil that must have brewed under her calm exterior, so I blamed the demon I knew — chemotherapy — for all her ills. I couldn't understand how a drug that was supposed to make you better could make you so sick. Years later I still wondered the same thing as I faced the possibility of the treatment.
While this was rolling around my brain I began to notice how prevalent cancer is in media. A relaxing hour of "The People's Court" can quickly be turned into a dog day afternoon by ads for Western New York State-of-the-Art-Cancer-Treatment Clinics and cancer patients urging us not to smoke.
More from CTVNews.ca about colon cancer:
- Possible carcinogen found in French fries, potato chips and other foods: study
- Young adults not immune to colon cancer, shouldn't ignore signs based on age: experts
- Half of colorectal cancers diagnosed too late for effective treatment: study
- U.S. cancer group says colon screening should start at 45, not 50
- Half of colorectal cancers diagnosed too late for effective treatment: study
Then there's the news. Every day it seemed someone famous was diagnosed or dying of some sort of nasty cancer. Karen Black, Bonnie Franklin, Gary David Goldberg ("Sit, Ubu, it.") and critical godhead Roger Ebert, among many others, all succumbed to the disease, making headlines and reminding me of my own mortality. Sure, I feel bad for them, but I couldn't help but make it personal. The passing of every boldfaced name, many of whom I had met over the years, felt like being poked with the cancer stick. And no, I don't want to watch the series finale of "The Big C." Thanks very much.
Remember breaking up with someone and suddenly everything reminds you of that person? Your ears and eyes flood your brain with reminders of what once was. Every song on the radio, a romantic movie or every warm summer breeze becomes evocative of a time in your life. It's the same with cancer. Once you've been diagnosed you become very aware of how many time every day you hear the word cancer referenced. Each of them bores their way into your head, bringing you back to a place where you can see the imaginary sword of Damocles hanging over your head. The word cuts through the noise, becoming the strongest signal. The world starts to sound like this, "Blah, blah, blah, CANCER! Blah, blah, CANCER!"
People send you "helpful" articles on the benefits of an all yam diet or stories of people who have gone into remission after treating themselves with prayer, sodium bicarbonate and sun gazing. One article, however, grabbed my attention. The eye-grabbing headline read, "Scientists Say Smelling Farts Prevents Cancer," and began the article with, "This is not a hoax, folks." According to the University of Exeter the hydrogen sulfide gas that causes the pungent smell in rotten eggs and flatulence can do battle with a variety of diseases, including cancer. If that is true, it's unlikely my hospital roommate will ever contract cancer. It was too late for me, but I'm happy to have played a preventative role in keeping him healthy via my recuperative farts.
Read the University of Exeter study: Rotten egg gas holds key to healthcare therapies
In truth very little of the material sent to you is worth a look. I thought of it as hope peddling, the well meaning dissemination of information meant to make you feel better — you can cure yourself with ultraviolet light and classical music! — and give you optimism. These "helpful" articles and bits of advice struck me as snake oil. Well meaning snake oil, but snake oil nonetheless.
Diet, of course, is important but the suggestion that there is a magic button that anyone can press and suddenly feel better, free of the shackles of cancer, is disingenuous. Recommendations of cancer eradicating magic fruits, vegetables and extracts — there's a tribe in the Andes that lives off of Yak Extract and they've never had a single reported case of cancer! — came at me hard and fast from well intentioned friends and family who hoped to instill a measure of hope in me, but as I hit the delete button on any email marked Cancer Cure, it dawned on me that hope can only come from one place, inside. You either have it or you don't.
My mother had it. She was sick and must have known that one day cancer would kill her, but she fought for years to keep it at bay. Near the end, when it was evitable, when it was a matter of days, maybe hours, she held on longer than anyone expected.
Our family doctor was also a close personal friend of my parents. I had grown up with him as my MD and knew his wife and kids from dinners and family outings. Over the years he paid professional visits to our house as well. Grim-faced, he would speak in whispers to my father, letting him know that there was nothing more to be done. It was her time.
But she held on.
Why? She had hope. She had the determination to stay alive even when her body failed her. The story of her final days is a testament to strength and the power of hope. If I wrote a country and western song about it I'd call it "Mother Lived to See the Roses" and in my head I can hear George Jones singing it.
We had a country home about 24 km from our town house. My parents designed it together after falling in love with the stucco houses they saw in Spain. Etched into a rock outside were the words El Campo Casa, The Country House. It was to be their retirement home, a house built with love that would ring with life from now until their golden years. Cancer took that dream away from them, but every May 24th weekend we moved to "the cottage" for the summer. When she was well enough my mother would plant a garden, take long walks on the beach and entertain.
May, 1980 was her last visit to El Campo Casa. In mid May we were once again told, although a bit more forcefully this time, she wouldn't live more than a few days. She still wanted to move out to the summerhouse and see her garden one more time but the doctors told us she wouldn't make it to the weekend. My father had fully grown roses planted in the garden and moved us out to El Campo Casa. The next day she was gone, having seen her roses and her house one last time.
She lasted because she was hopeful, because she willed herself. The time had come for her suffering to end, she knew and so did we, but she had the power to close out her life on her terms. That day was the saddest I have ever been, but in a way I was relieved for her. She had lived despite the odds against her. She persevered because she had hope, was optimistic that there would be small wins along the way. There was no Yak Extract, just a powerful will to shape her own destiny, whatever that may be.
Of all the lessons I learned from her, to be kind, to have good humour and respect, that was the most important. Equal parts grace and strength, she taught by example how to cope with whatever came my way, good or bad.
The full weight of that lesson hit me now as I waited to find out whether I needed chemo or not. I didn't want the treatment. I didn't want the inconvenience, the throwing up or hair loss. The idea of pumping myself full of poison to make me better seemed counterintuitive and if it could be avoided I didn't want to do it. Unfortunately I didn't have any say in the matter. It's always possible to refuse treatment, but since I let my medical licence lapse I didn't feel I was qualified to make that decision. If the doctors looking out for my wellbeing thought it was best, I'd do it.
At this stage in the process loads of information comes tumbling at you like scary clowns out of a tiny circus car. Big words and terrifying technical terms spill off doctor's lips. I understood ninety per cent of it and silently nodded my way through the bits I didn't get, figuring I'd be able to discern from tone and body language what was crucial to my health and what wasn't. It's like being in a foreign country where you don't understand the language and where everyone talks really fast. When you're just asking for directions you don't get it all but when it's important — like when you really have to go to the bathroom and can't find a restroom — suddenly your understanding of the language improves.
Of all the info the bit I hung on to was a throwaway remark from one of the doctors. "You may not have to have chemo." Looking back now I realize how noncommittal the words are but as a person hoping not to be hooked up to machines I clung to them as gospel. To my ears "You may not have to have chemo," became "You're scot-free! No drugs for you! You have already conquered cancer and now you may go!" Delusional for sure but for weeks after the surgery it put my mind at ease.
Appointments came and went and everything was going well. The laparoscopic holes were healing and my colon hadn't blown apart so I was ready to declare myself healthy.
Ever present, however, was that feeling you get in the pit of your stomach when something bad is about to happen… some real grown-up shit. I've only had it a few times. Probably the first time I got a "We need to talk" phone call from a long ago girlfriend and another time when I was almost run over on a Los Angeles street by a driver who wasn't paying attention.
I remember it was like in slow motion. I fell, blinded by the headlights of the car that was about to run me over and I'm thinking, "This is it. All those… moments… will be lost in time, like tears… in… rain. Time… to die…" OK, I didn't have time to recite the entire "Blade Runner" C-Beams Speech to myself but I was very aware that something terrible was about to happen.
I felt the same way when a doctor I had never seen before walked into my room. She had a smile on her lips but bad news in her eyes.
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, and the indignity of hospitalization. In a week, we'll have the next instalment in his series on surviving colon cancer.
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:
- 'Dumbo' remake is pure Burton eye-candy
- 'Us' is gory, outlandish and resonates in Trump-era America
- 'Wonder Park' more poignant and heart-tugging than you'd expect
- 'Captain Marvel' is convoluted, cluttered and as refreshing as it is unusual
- 'A Madea Family Funeral' puts Tyler Perry's most famous character to rest
- 'How to train your dragon: The Hidden World' pushes the boundaries
- 'Alita: Battle Angel' is a CGI spectacle with a synthetic heart
- 'Lego Movie 2' zips along, but not as awesome as original
- 'Miss Bala' potboiler rarely gets above a simmer
- 'The Kid Who Would Be King' brims with good messages