Steve Crump opens up, but tak­ing ‘baby steps’ in dis­cussing his can­cer

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Front Page - BY THÉODEN JANES [email protected]­lot­teob­server.com

Steve Crump is try­ing, as best he can, to be an open book about his bat­tle with can­cer. He’s just got a cou­ple of ground rules: First off, not a word about stages. Yes, Crump — one of WBTV’s long­est-serv­ing

ac­tive re­porters, with 32 years at the sta­tion — was di­ag­nosed with colon can­cer that had spread to his liver last July; and yes, he’s OK de­scrib­ing it as “se­ri­ous”; and yes, he knows peo­ple could guess what stage it is.

But no, he doesn’t want to hear your guess. He’s tak­ing the tack of one of his

‘‘ I WANT TO COME BACK WITH THE SAME LEVEL OF IN­TEGRITY THAT I HOPE THAT I’VE PUT IN HERE BE­FORE. A TEAM OF WELL-QUAL­I­FIED DOC­TORS HAS SAID, ‘YOU’RE GONNA BEAT THIS THING.’”

Steve Crump

doc­tors, he says: “‘We don’t deal in stages here. We deal in hope. We deal in get­ting you bet­ter.’”

Don’t try to make prog­nos­ti­ca­tions about how long he’ll sur­vive if the can­cer stays in his body, ei­ther. “I mean, there have been times I’ve drank milk on April 17th, when the use-by date was April 13th, and it’s still fine,” he says. “So I think in some re­gards, you try to be a no-limit per­son.”

Crump knows as well as any­one that there is no way to pre­dict the fu­ture.

On Valen­tine’s Day in 1984, when he was 26 years old and still cut­ting his jour­nal­ism teeth as a re­porter at WKYT in Lex­ing­ton, Ky., his mother was di­ag­nosed with breast can­cer. The next month, his step­fa­ther pulled him aside on their way into a church ser­vice and said: “Al­right, here’s what we’re up against: She’s started ra­di­a­tion. If the treat­ments take, she’s prob­a­bly got six months with us. If they don’t work out, she may have six weeks.”

Joyce Spald­ing died less than 48 hours later.

Then there’s Steve Crump’s own can­cer or­deal, and it’s a doozy. Af­ter strug­gling with “some un­usual di­ges­tive and bath­room habits” last spring and into sum­mer, it pro­gressed to where he ended up mak­ing a trip to the ER in late July. There, he got the news of his ill­ness.

He had his first chemo­ther­apy treat­ment in Au­gust, and then ...

Things went re­ally, re­ally wrong with his health. But not be­cause of the can­cer. Well, sort of be­cause of the can­cer. It’s com­pli­cated. This fact, mean­while, is sim­ple: Crump — who had sur­vived over­seas as­sign­ments in Su­dan and Bos­nia, nat­u­ral-dis­as­ter cov­er­age, vi­o­lent protests and as­sorted other dan­gers over the course of an award-win­ning jour­nal­ism ca­reer — is in­cred­i­bly lucky to still be alive.

‘HOP­ING FOR A LOT OF PRI­VACY’

For the record, Crump is not a com­plete stranger to this whole be­ing-on-theother-side-of-the-story busi­ness.

Three and a half years ago, while cov­er­ing the af­ter­math of Hur­ri­cane An­drew for WBTV in Charleston, S.C., he made news af­ter con­fronting a man who’d ca­su­ally hurled racial ep­i­thets at him while a cam­era rolled. Crump didn’t shy away from the spotlight then; in­stead, he em­braced the op­por­tu­nity to share every de­tail, to de­scribe every emo­tion, to show racism in raw form and put it into con­text.

But can­cer was a dif­fer­ent story. Ini­tially, can­cer wasn’t some­thing he wanted to talk about. In fact, in the days that fol­lowed his di­ag­no­sis, he couldn’t even get him­self to say the word can­cer. At least not pub­licly.

As he re­vealed on-air to WBTV’s Jamie Boll a cou­ple of weeks later that he would be tak­ing a leave of ab­sence, Crump would only char­ac­ter­ize it as “a se­ri­ous health con­di­tion.” Boll quickly noted that this would leave view­ers won­der­ing.

“‘What’s he talk­ing about?’” Boll said, an­tic­i­pat­ing the ques­tions. “‘He’s be­ing a lit­tle vague about this.’”

“Sure he is!” Crump blurted.

And so Boll asked: “Why?”

“I want prayers, you know, from the viewer,” Crump replied. “My wife and I are hop­ing for a lot of pri­vacy th­ese next few weeks as we work through this. I want to come back with the same level of in­tegrity that I hope that I’ve put in here be­fore. A team of well-qual­i­fied doc­tors has said, ‘You’re gonna beat this thing.’”

That, too, was a lit­tle vague.

It wasn’t un­til four months later, dur­ing an emo­tional sur­prise visit to his news­room dur­ing a staff hol­i­day lun­cheon, when he fi­nally re­vealed what by then vir­tu­ally ev­ery­one had sur­mised: that he had can­cer. But it still took him 2-1/2 months to specif­i­cally in­di­cate that it was colon can­cer.

Crump talks a lot about “baby steps” when it comes to his bat­tle against can­cer, and baby steps could also de­scribe how he’s come to peace with the fact that he can maybe make a dif­fer­ence in oth­ers’ lives by com­ing clean — by ac­knowl­edg­ing that he pre­vi­ously had only gone to the doc­tor when he got sick, brush­ing off an­nual phys­i­cals and ig­nor­ing the rec­om­mended can­cer screen­ings that might have caught his dis­ease sooner.

And yet there’s no phys­i­cal that could have an­tic­i­pated the bad luck that would be­fall Crump just one chemo treat­ment into his reg­i­men last year, no screen­ing that could have helped save him from the hell that was to come.

‘HOW WE GONNA FLY THE COOP?’

Like many can­cer pa­tients who need to un­dergo chemo­ther­apy treat­ment, Crump had a port de­vice placed un­der the skin on his chest so that the drugs could eas­ily and rou­tinely be ad­min­is­tered via a nee­dle and catheter directly into a large vein above his heart.

He got the first dose, he says, “and I felt like Clark Kent, man. I felt like I needed a cape on my back.”

But in late Au­gust, be­fore he could re­turn for his sec­ond dose, he sud­denly felt wob­bly and weak while walk­ing through the bed­room of the north­east Char­lotte home he shares with his wife of 3-1/2 years, Cathy. The next thing Crump knew, he was splayed out on the floor look­ing up at the ceil­ing.

Cathy man­aged to get him out­side and into the car, and she high-tailed it back up In­ter­state 85 North to de­liver him to Caroli­nas Health­care Sys­tem North­east hospi­tal in Con­cord.

Steve Crump wouldn’t see the in­side of his bed­room again for al­most two months.

The di­ag­no­sis was MRSA, a dan­ger­ous and po­ten­tially deadly an­tibi­otic-re­sis­tant staph in­fec­tion, and over the course of the next sev­eral weeks, the domi­noes started to fall: The MRSA caused his body to go into septic shock, which caused his blood pres­sure to drop pre­cip­i­tously; the dan­ger­ously low blood pres­sure put stress on his kid­neys, forc­ing him onto a dial­y­sis ma­chine; his right lung col­lapsed, and he was put on a ven­ti­la­tor; he was too weak to eat, so a feed­ing tube be­came nec­es­sary.

De­spite the best ef­forts of his doc­tors, by the time October rolled around, Crump’s body had de­te­ri­o­rated to a point from which it ap­peared there might ac­tu­ally be no re­turn.

WBTV me­te­o­rol­o­gist Al Con­klin — a long­time pal who Crump af­fec­tion­ately refers to as Sharpie (a nod to Rev. Al Sharp­ton) — re­counts pay­ing a visit to the hospi­tal on one of his friend’s worst days, in early October:

“He was in re­ally bad shape,” Con­klin says. “He was hon­estly very ag­i­tated, and he’s lay­ing there in the bed and just kind of rest­ing a lit­tle bit, and he flops his head over — ’cause that’s about all the en­ergy he had left — and he sees me, and his eyes lock on me, and he says, ‘Sharpie, how we gonna fly the coop?’ I didn’t know if I should laugh or cry. I said, ‘Steve, we’re on the third floor. What do you want me to do, tie bed sheets to­gether?’”

Con­klin laughed. Then as he left the room, he wept, con­sid­er­ing the dis­tinct pos­si­bil­ity that he might never see his friend again.

“We had to face the de­ci­sion: What should we do?” re­calls his on­col­o­gist, Mo­hamed Salem of Levine Can­cer In­sti­tute, re­flect­ing on how grave the sit­u­a­tion was.

“Should we let him go, put him in a com­fort mea­sure, not be ag­gres­sive and do noth­ing, and let things take their course? Or should we just keep try­ing to push? ... My opin­ion was, ‘If he’s dy­ing now, he’s dy­ing from the com­pli­ca­tion of the in­fec­tion. He’s not ac­tu­ally dy­ing from the can­cer. If it is the can­cer that’s tak­ing over and that’s the rea­son, that’s fine, but no, that’s not hap­pen­ing.’ ... So I strongly felt we should give him the chance to fight this.”

He says Cathy Crump — who, he adds, seemed to never leave his side over the course of the 51 days he was in the hospi­tal — com­pletely agreed with his de­ci­sion.

“It’s like we were pulling him to our side,” Salem says, “and also death was pulling him to­ward the other side, and we would just have to see who was gonna win.”

‘I FELT THIS BURST OF EN­ERGY’

Crump’s rec­ol­lec­tions of all this are fuzzy at best.

He gen­er­ally re­calls that feel­ing of be­ing trapped in the hospi­tal, but he hon­estly seems to be­lieve Con­klin might be mak­ing that con­ver­sa­tion up just to mess with him ... even though he does faintly re­mem­ber at­tempt­ing to re­move his IVs so he could crawl out of bed, and telling Cathy to get him $500 be­cause he knew some guys who could help sneak him back out into the world.

His very dark­est days, of course, are com­plete blank spots.

When the an­tibi­otics fi­nally started do­ing their job and Crump’s sys­tems fi­nally started com­ing back on­line and the fog fi­nally started to lift, he grad­u­ally gained an aware­ness from doc­tors and his wife of how close a call he’d had — and how long the road to re­cov­ery would be.

It would be, as he still says to­day, about baby steps.

As a mat­ter of fact, aside from prayers and vis­its from friends and fam­ily, the one happy mem­ory that truly stands out for him from this oth­er­wise-har­row­ing or­deal in­volved lit­eral baby steps.

“At­ro­phy had set in my legs,” Crump says. “I’m learn­ing how to op­er­ate a wheel­chair. But the sec­ond day I’m there in the re­hab hospi­tal, I was feel­ing like I re­ally wanted to walk. So I’m at the par­al­lel bars, and they had two peo­ple spot­ting me with a wheel­chair and (another) in front of me, and I felt this burst of en­ergy.

“At the top of my lungs, I yelled ... ‘Stand back!’ I took six steps, col­lapsed in the wheel­chair, and I cried. Be­cause it was six steps of in­de­pen­dence that I had not ex­pe­ri­enced in such a long time.”

Some­thing else he hadn’t ex­pe­ri­enced in a long time? The thrill of chas­ing a story. So, back at home, as he felt up to it while con­tin­u­ing to re­cover, he found him­self al­most re­flex­ively scratch­ing the itch.

“There were some sto­ries done, and he was call­ing in and kind of do­ing the arm­chair quar­ter­back thing,” says WBTV gen­eral man­ager Scott Dempsey, chuck­ling. “I mean, he’s a beloved pain in the ass. ... But that’s just in his blood, re­ally. I don’t think it gets out of it.”

Crump would need the strength that got him up and walk­ing again, and the fire that had him chim­ing in on his col­leagues’ work.

Be­cause it was al­most time, fi­nally, to get back to fight­ing can­cer again.

‘BACK TO WHAT I LOVE’

By the end of the year, he was al­most 100 pounds lighter than he had been when he first got his di­ag­no­sis — down to about 175. And if you hadn’t seen him since June, you might have thought he looked deathly ill.

But in truth, he was as healthy as he’d been in quite awhile.

So on Jan. 2, more than five months af­ter he was di­ag­nosed with “a very se­ri­ous” case of colon can­cer and about 4-1/2 since his one and only dose of chemo­ther­apy to fight it, Crump was deemed strong enough to be­gin a steady and con­sis­tent treat­ment reg­i­men.

Re­cent scans in­di­cate that it’s work­ing: The tu­mor ap­pears to be de­creas­ing in size. At the same time, doc­tors are also plan­ning to weigh op­tions for surgery to cut it out, as they had been last sum­mer be­fore the MRSA in­fec­tion threw a wrench in the works.

As is al­ways the case with can­cer pa­tients, Crump is deal­ing with a slew of un­knowns, of things that are out of his con­trol. So he’s fo­cus­ing on what he con­trol. His legacy, for in­stance. On March 1 — al­most seven months af­ter he closely guarded the na­ture of his ill­ness in that in­ter­view with Jamie Boll — Crump came full cir­cle, com­plet­ing the tran­si­tion from be­ing a pub­lic fig­ure try­ing to keep some­thing pri­vate to be­ing a pub­lic fig­ure ac­knowl­edg­ing the dif­fer­ence he can make.

“Well, I’ve been deal­ing with colon can­cer,” Crump told WBTV’s Kris­ten Mi­randa that morn­ing on-air, as he sat be­side Salem, his on­col­o­gist. “The rea­son why we’re here to­day — it’s not so much about me and shar­ing my story, that’s part of it — but to at least get the word out. To­day is March 1st, and that in it­self kicks off Colon Can­cer Aware­ness month.”

He’s still strug­gling. He’s clearly a lit­tle em­bar­rassed when he ad­mits that he never went to the doc­tor and never had a colonoscopy be­fore his di­ag­no­sis at age 60. (“It’s a tough les­son,” he says, sigh­ing.) There’s a part of him that still, deep down, prob­a­bly craves that pri­vacy. (In fact, his wife Cathy con­tin­ues to in­sist on it — through Crump and oth­ers, she de­clined mul­ti­ple re­quests to be in­ter­viewed for this story.)

But he also gets it now. He knows he him­self can’t hide, then turn around and ask the peo­ple he in­ter­views as a jour­nal­ist to open up to him.

Speak­ing of which, yes, he’s back on the air. Back since March 18 — al­beit in a lim­ited ca­pac­ity, just a few hours a cou­ple of days a week.

“Back to what I love,” Crump says, his voice break­ing and a sin­gle tear spilling over onto his cheek.

“I’m only here be­cause of God’s grace and mercy, I’ll tell any­body that. ... Will I be what I was? Prob­a­bly not. At the same time, I don’t want to die with my mu­sic still in me. I don’t want there to be a bushel over what light I have. And I still think that I’m in a po­si­tion where I can con­trib­ute some­thing.

“It’s been a great run. But I think I’ve got a few more sto­ries left.”

DAVID T. FOS­TER III dt­fos­[email protected]­lot­teob­server.com

WBTV’s Steve Crump has re­cently re­turned to light duty at the sta­tion af­ter a long ab­sence so he could bat­tle colon can­cer.

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