Richard Crouse and the 'c' word: The challenge of coming out to colleagues
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 3: 'Doing what I was told': The indignity of being hospitalized
- Part 4: 'You either have it or you don't': Keeping the faith in cancer care
- 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
The anger stage faded quickly. "Anger is an energy," sang Johnny Lydon, but it is a negative energy that I found draining to maintain even for a short time. Waking up with an anger hangover after the ice cream and a night's sleep I lay in bed and tried to find a new perspective on my diagnosis.
I still didn't use the word cancer. In fact that "c" word didn't slip from my lips for a month or more. I had a tumour. It sounded nicer, like I wasn't sick. I've always had a macabre sense of humour — "Be nice! You'll miss me when I die," I'd joke when Andrea was mad at me — but now the idea was a little closer to home and giving the disease a name seemed to legitimize it in a way I wasn't prepared for yet. Cancer was deadly; tumours are pesky, almost cute.
That's how I rationalized it at first. It also made it easier to tell people. I didn't want the news getting around. I didn't want pity or to be treated differently or to be on the receiving end of doe eyes or have people avoid me because they didn't know what to say. Avoid me because I gave your movie rating of minus infinity times a million or because of that time I stole your lunch from the office fridge, but not because I have cancer. There was, however, a small list of people I had to tell. Most were professional contacts who would miss me if I suddenly fell ill and started missing deadlines.
At Newstalk 1010, where I've been the morning radio entertainment reporter for the better part of ten years, I waited until the post-mortem meeting after a busy show. Everyone sits around a large boardroom table covered with newspapers and empty coffee mugs and essentially argues over the show and what stories will make it to air the following day. At 9 a.m. most of them have been up for six or more hours and the conversations, coming off of doing a three-hour talk show, are animated. I sat quietly until I saw a chance to butt in.
"I have some news," I said, knowing that if I didn't blurt out something interesting, and quick, the conversation would barrel on without me. Should I make a joke? "I've just been diagnosed with a tumour. I was scared at first but it's starting to grow on me." Waka waka waka.
That didn't seem appropriate, even for this bunch of hardened newsroom rats, so I kept it simple and direct. "I have a tumour and may not be able to come in every day."
Perhaps I was uncharacteristically timid in my delivery because it didn't seem to sink in. Or maybe they weren't prepared to hear what I said.
More from CTVNews.ca about colon cancer:
"Is it cancer awareness month?" someone asked, I guess thinking I was pitching a story instead of opening my medical records.
"No, the doctor I saw the other day found a tumour and I thought you should know in case I have to take some time off."
When it dawned on them I wasn't joking or pitching a story their faces fell and the room got quiet. The usual well wishes and "If there's anything I can dos" followed before I exited with a greater understanding of how easy it is to make a room full of adults uncomfortable. I felt the same as I did before the diagnosis, which is to say fine, but now these people were going to treat me like I was made of glass.
It wasn't until about a week later, just before I went in for the colon resection that their initial shock melted away. "How's that tumour going for ya?" I was asked as I walked into the control room. It made me happy. Then and there I knew I wasn't going to be treated with kid gloves around the station.
It was a different experience sharing the news with the executive producer of Canada AM, the television show that featured my movie reviews. I grabbed her in the hallway outside the make-up room, a long corridor with fluorescent lighting and stark white tiles, not unlike a hospital walkway. I gave her the tumour spiel and I don't remember all of what she said, except that she said five words that reverberate with me still.
"When I had MY cancer…" The way she said it stopped me in my tracks. Not only did it suggest that the tumour — I still hadn't embraced the "c" word — was curable — After all, look at her! She was ill and now she's fine — but the way she put the emphasis on the "my" made it feel like it was something you could have and manage. It was hers. She took ownership of it. It wasn't a foreign invader doing battle from the inside, like a deadly Trojan Horse, but a possession that could be mastered. I'm sure she had no idea of the meaning I inferred from her words but I found them inspirational.
As a writer I've always known that words have a great deal of power but as someone with an illness and perhaps overly sensitive to how people spoke to me I learned a great deal about what to say and what not to say. For instance, when someone tells you they have cancer, don't ask what's on their bucket list. Not only was it a crappy movie that wasted the talents of Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman, but as a concept it places, front and centre, the idea that the mortality clock is ticking. Loudly. You may as well ask, "How long do you have?" and really, do you want to be that person?
It was then I decided to live my life with as little disruption as possible. It was my way of saying "Screw You Cancer," you're not making the rules, I am. I have cancer dammit, but I will be the King of Cancer. I will kiss it on its filthy mouth and send it on its way. Optimistic maybe, but I firmly believe that a good attitude is one of the keys to leading a healthy life even in the face of serious medical issues. I'm not Patch Adams or anything, I just feel that moping around feeds the beast and inhibits recovery.
Living without disruption is tough though. Cancer, of course, is disruptive and not just on a cellular level. It is hard to lead a regular life with endless doctor's appointments. The date book fills up quickly, leaving little room for regular stuff like work and leisurely lunches.
The preliminary MD meetings are all the same. A faded photocopy health history form — get used to these, you'll be filling out a lot of them, so bring a pen — is your passport. Every office has one and they're all the same, which begs the question why there can't be a centralized database containing all our health info. I know, cue the conspiracy theories, but during this period I was thrown into a Kafkaesque funk filling the same forms out over and over and over.
The first serious appointments were with the surgeon, a self-described "gut man" who would later confiscate part of my colon. My first impression of him is that he bore an uncanny resemblance to Dexter Morgan, noted TV serial killer and blood splatter expert.
"I'm a fatalist," he said as he went over the charts provided by my first colonoscopist. Wow, that even sounds like something Dexter would say. Hearing the word fatal in any form from a doctor is discomforting but I chose to look past the word and into the intent. I took it as shorthand for, "I'm a worst case scenario guy and I will do everything I can in my power to fix you." I came to look forward to his slightly dour continence that was so at odds with the faux chipper "How are we today" attitude of most health-care professionals.
In his unique downbeat way he detailed what would happen in the operating room. Using diagrams that looked more like balloon animals made by a demented clown with a passing acquaintance of Gray's Anatomy than body parts to me, he showed me a colon and marked it up according to where he would be cutting and pasting. It was the best of a bad situation he explained. The tumour hadn't broken through the colon wall — if it had this would be a very different discussion — and it was located in an easy to reach and easily extractable location.
Being the in-the-moment guy I am — more on that later — I was gung ho to get started. It sounded easy, other than the laparoscopic surgery and the actual removal of my colon that is. It is major surgery and there would be recovery time required but Dexter the Doctor inspired confidence in me. It's fairly easy to apply other life experience to the idea of cutting what is essentially a long tube in half, removing part of it and stitching it back together. It is invasive, but I thought of it as a mechanical procedure, something tangible. Cancer is amorphous. Cells go crazy and mutate. I had no real life counterpart to compare that to. A mutant growing inside me; it was like science fiction.
The cancer seemed uncertain. As questions still battered my brain the colon surgeon was oddly calming. This is what's going to happen, he'd say, and explain step by step what I could expect. The surgery is a notch or three above routine, but the body reacts in predictable ways so I knew what to expect. That gave me a confidence the cancer doctors weren't instilling in me.
A date was set and I'm actually looking forward to it. The sooner I get started, I figure, the sooner all this will be over. In early July I was holding out hope that we could saw the cancer out of me and avoid follow-up chemotherapy.
The word chemotherapy refers to the use of drugs to kill cancer cells. That's the polite way of saying it. Really it's targeted poison injected directly into your being with the purpose of making your hair fall out, making you throw up and God knows what else. At least that's what I thought. The very thought of the word conjured up images of my mother's wigs displayed on Styrofoam heads, days spent lying in bed and "Your mom's not feeling well enough to see you right now…"
Slice and dice me, I thought, but forget the poison. I didn't want to be one of those grey people you see with a scarf wrapped around their heads were their hair used to be.
The day of the surgery was mostly like any other day, although one prefaced with the terrible draining effects of the colonoscopy prep. With no fear, but with a tired and overworked colon, I reported to the hospital.
The surgery is the easy part. Show up, wait, change into a robe lay down and later, when the anesthesia wears off, give your head a shake and wonder what happened. There was a troubling moment when the anesthesiologist described what she was going to inject into my veins that my ears pricked up. Propofol? Wasn't that the drug that killed Michael Jackson? She reassured me and I figured since I wasn't using it recreationally I'd be fine.
I remember the sterile, cold surroundings of the operating room. The smiling, reassuring faces of the nurses and doctors and an injection followed by darkness, no dreams, nothing. As far as I knew only a few minutes had passed since they administered the knock out juice. In fact, hours had gone by. I had a catheter, stitches and less colon than when I woke up that morning.
Through the recovery haze I imagined what it looked like. Perhaps, I thought, like the squids you see hanging in the windows of the shops in Chinatown, translucent, tubular. What did they do with it? We had been together for a long time, my colon and I, and now it was in the trash.
For the first time in several years I was technically cancer free. Better living through surgery. I read that human cells die at a rate of 60,000,000,000 every day. I took a short cut and simply had the bad cells cut away. Now I waited for my body to get to work and heal.
Last week, Crouse shared the life-changing moment he first heard his diagnosis. 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:
- 'Wonder Park' more poignant 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
- 'Glass' twist-o-rama proves more is not more
- 'Destroyer' is Kidman in full-blown anti-heroine mode