Steve Crump comes clean about cancer: ‘I don’t want to die with my music still in me’

WBTV reporter Steve Crump continues colon cancer fight

Reporter Steve Crump talks about returning to work at WBTV as he continues treatment for colon cancer, the complications during treatment, the support of friends and family, as well as the empowerment of his faith.
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Reporter Steve Crump talks about returning to work at WBTV as he continues treatment for colon cancer, the complications during treatment, the support of friends and family, as well as the empowerment of his faith.

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 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-the-other-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.

WARNING: Video contains graphic language. A Virginia man was arrested after a street confrontation in Charleston in which racial slurs were directed at Steve Crump, a veteran WBTV (Channel 3) reporter and maker of award-winning civil rights docume

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.

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Steve Crump wheeled his way back into the WBTV newsroom in December for a surprise visit, just in time to help celebrate the retirements of longtime broadcasters Paul Cameron (left) and Delano Little. Courtesy of Steve Crump

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.

Steve Crump, photographed last year at Atrium Health’s Carolinas HealthCare System NorthEast hospital. Courtesy of Steve Crump

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.

Steve Crump steadies himself with a walker, assisted by a staffer at Carolinas Rehabilitation-NorthEast. Courtesy of Steve Crump

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.

Steve Crump, photographed with his wife Cathy. Courtesy of Steve Crump

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 can 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.”

Steve Crump, a reporter at Charlotte, NC TV station WBTV, returned to the station after a battle with colon cancer.

Théoden Janes: 704-358-5897, @theodenjanes

Théoden Janes has spent 12 years covering entertainment and pop culture for the Observer. He also thrives on telling emotive long-form stories about extraordinary Charlotteans and — as a veteran of 20-plus marathons and two Ironman triathlons — occasionally writes about endurance and other sports.