Cancer can do a mind job on someone.
No one knows that better than Christy Crouch. In 2015, the therapist lived in Kentucky. She volunteered at concession stands for her daughters’ school, planned school events and attended church activities. She loved teaching psychology at the college level and serving as a guidance counselor at a small Christian school.
But that all changed the night of May 22, 2015, when Crouch had a massive seizure. The incident led to her finding out that she had a brain tumor at just 47 years old.
“I feel like I’m Alice falling through the hole, trying to grasp onto something, and there’s nothing to hold on to,” Crouch says.
Many aspects of her life changed dramatically and left her in physical and emotional need of help. Her jobs, her balance, her memory – all taken from her by her disease. When she moved to Charleston in 2016, she was relieved to learn Hollings Cancer Center had many support services, including psychological consults.
That’s when she met Wendy Balliet, Ph.D., a psychologist with Hollings Cancer Center who specializes in cancer counseling. She helps Crouch find her bearings when she feels she’s falling down that tunnel.
“Dr. Balliet has been probably one of the biggest contributions to my sense of purpose and sense of healing,” Crouch says. “She helps me look at those things that I can hold on to.”
After the shock faded about her diagnosis, Crouch had to figure out what living with cancer meant. The MRI after her seizure had revealed devastating news. A brain tumor, later identified as a grade two oligodendroglioma, sat on Crouch’s parietal lobe. This rare type of tumor makes up only 4% of all brain tumors. It was more than her doctors in Kentucky could handle, so she was sent to Duke University.
Before brain surgery at Duke on Sept. 14, 2015, Crouch had one request for her doctors.
“I said, ‘You need to understand – the most important thing about me is my husband is deaf. I need one eye and one hand, or I have nothing to live for.’”
She awoke unable to move her left side and immediately started to practice signing with her right hand to help her left hand remember how to sign. After a month of rehabilitation, Crouch returned home feeling as though the tumor had stolen her independence – she couldn’t drive, was constantly exhausted from her seizure medication, couldn’t be as involved in her three teenage girls’ lives and had to quit her two beloved jobs. She questioned if her life would ever be filled with the joy she once knew.
Then, her family was dealt another devastating blow – her husband was losing his job of 25 years. Finally, nine months later, a difficult period in their lives turned triumphant when her husband found a job in Charleston.
“When we found out we were moving here, I knew that I had every resource that I needed within 30 minutes,” Crouch says. “That was a huge comfort to me.”
Crouch was filled with relief when she found out that Hollings Cancer Center had a brain tumor board.
After moving to Charleston the day after Christmas in 2016, she came under the care of neurooncologist Scott Lindhorst, M.D., at Hollings Cancer Center.
“I felt even better knowing that Dr. Lindhorst was trained under my doctors at Duke and the communication between them has been phenomenal,” Crouch says. “He’s amazing.”
A New Reality
Even with the best care, Crouch’s surgery left her with disabilities and a new reality. She dwelled on her old life – a time when she had a strong memory and could master any puzzle and multitask at work and home. Now, she scribbles important details, conversations and events she needs to remember into a notebook and is still learning how to walk again.
“Because of my problems with proprioception, I have no idea where my left hand or foot are if I’m not looking at them,” she says. “I’ve broken my toes so many times, it’s not even funny.”
"I feel like I’m Alice falling through the hole, trying to grasp onto something, and there’s nothing to hold on to.”
- Christy Crouch
After having to leave her jobs, Crouch had a hard time finding activities practical enough for her new way of life. Through counseling, she’s learning to celebrate the small things, like driving, finishing a book and knitting a dishcloth.
“I’m the happiest girl when I’ve got a book in my hand, and I actually remember what I read,” she says.
With every mile driven, page read and stitch knitted, she regains a little piece of joy. If her diagnosis opened her eyes to anything, it’s to be more present. Whether it’s paying attention to where her foot is or spending time with her husband and daughters, she wants to live in the here and now.
“Never did I take the time to stop and go make those memories,” she says, “because I didn’t realize I was going to be in this situation.”
She and her husband had long dreamed about their 25th anniversary trip. This year, they’ll make it a reality by going to Hawaii, giving them much- needed time together.
In 2018, Crouch’s “word of the year” was purpose. This year, she chose perseverance. Little did she know how fitting the word would be.
Upon her return to Charleston from the trip, she will begin radiation and chemotherapy. In March, they discovered the tumor had grown. Not wanting to endure more physical and mental limitations before her trip, her doctors supported her request to wait until after Hawaii to start treatment.
Resources, such as counselors and support groups, have given Crouch the support she needs to deal with how cancer has affected her life. Without Balliet, Crouch says she would still be needlessly struggling, as many other patients are, due to a failure to take advantage of such resources.
“I think we get so lost in the here and now and how bad it is that we forget that there are good things,” she says. “And that’s always been kind of one of my themes of life – to be grateful for everything.”
Through counseling with Balliet, Crouch has overcome her reluctance to ask for help. As her father-in-law told her, don’t steal other people’s ability to be a blessing by denying their help. She’s learned to place some of her burden on others and plan her life around what she can realistically do and chooses to do.
“I have to let go of being so self-reliant in that control and saying I need help,” Crouch says. “That’s why I’m so grateful that I have MUSC because, regardless of what I’ve needed, it’s been here.” When she left her jobs, she thought she left her purpose with them. Attending brain tumor support groups has led her to find meaning in everything she does. She also has returned to her former role as a nurturer and caregiver. Using her trials and experiences, Crouch wants to counsel other patients, caregivers, friends and family who know the pain of a brain tumor diagnosis.
“If there’s a purpose for me going through all this to be able to help other people, then that’s what I have to do,” she says.
Through her cancer experience and therapy sessions, there is one thing Crouch has found she can always hold on to – hope.
“If you can hold on to hope, regardless of whether it’s little or big, that’s that something that I’m looking for to hold on to when falling through that tunnel,” she says.