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Ahead of the curve

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Offhand comment led to early cancer diagnosis for local teacher

By Stephen Lega

An offhand comment at a routine checkup may have saved Richard Crum’s life.
His comment led to an ultrasound, which led to two surgeries, which left him with less than one fully functioning kidney.
The story of how Crum, 67, got to this point begins last October, when he went to the doctor for a regular check of his cholesterol levels. His physician, Dr. William Kirk, wasn’t able to see him that day, so Crum met with Physician’s Assistant Patricia Pulliam instead.
Crum mentioned that he thought he might have a hernia. It turns out he didn’t, but Pulliam suggested doing an ultrasound.
That’s when they discovered a growth on his left kidney.
Crum was referred to Dr. James Angel. After looking at the images, Angel told Crum that he had renal cell carcinoma. That was Oct. 23, 2012.
Renal cell carcinoma is typically slow growing, and prior to his diagnosis, Crum didn’t have any reason to think anything was wrong.
“Usually with this type of cancer, you find out when you start peeing blood,” Crum said.
If not for Pulliam’s suggestion about performing an ultrasound, Crum’s cancer may have continued to grow for years before he realized anything was wrong. As he spoke about his experience, he repeatedly spoke about how grateful he was for Pulliam’s work.
A CAT Scan revealed that Crum actually had growths on both kidneys, which only occurs in 1 percent of cases.
“I should have bought a lottery ticket,” he said.
Crum said his wife, Mimi, was a calming presence throughout the experience.
“She’s easily who you’d want if you’re in a bad situation,” Crum said.
Removing the tumors would require two separate surgeries. Because of where the left growth was located, that kidney had to be removed entirely. The other growth was positioned differently.
“The right one was in the suburbs of the kidney,” Crum said.
That meant the growth on the right would require removing a part of that kidney instead of the whole thing.
Nevertheless, the surgeries had to be performed at different times, and as it turned out, they were performed in different places. That also meant Crum would be off work for months.
Crum has been teaching for 43 years. His career included stays in Michigan and Washington County. Since 2000, he has been a science teacher at St. Charles Middle School.
“I love being around kids, especially middle school,” Crum said.
He said he was straightforward with his students about what he was going through and why he would be out of the classroom for a while.
His educational colleagues supported him as well, including donating sick time — Eric King (the principal at the Marion County Area Technology Center) even gave him 10 days — which helped Crum and his family get through the months he wasn’t able to teach, he said.
Angel removed Crum’s left kidney on Nov. 17.
“I think James Angel is as good as anybody in the country,” Crum said.
Nevertheless, he decided to have his second surgery, which required removing part of his right kidney, at the Cleveland Clinic. Crum said Angel explained that he could do the partial removal. Angel also explained that he did around five of those kinds of surgeries a year, whereas, surgeons at the Cleveland Clinic performed closer to five of those surgeries every week.
Crum and his wife, Mimi, visited the clinic in late December, where they met the doctor who would perform his second surgery.
“The Cleveland Clinic is a fantastic place,” Crum said. “Everything is top end as far as service goes.”
The doctor called him several times before and after the surgery to make sure Crum was feeling well. That surgery was performed Jan. 30.
He and Mimi stayed at the clinic for a week after the surgery before returning home. After recuperating for a month and a half, Crum returned to work in mid-March.
He’s also been able to return to drag racing in his car, “Teacher’s Pet,” and he continues to play golf.
Crum knows he has been fortunate. He also knows that without the ultrasound, it may have been a year or two before he learned about his cancer, and at that point, his experience would have been much different.
He is grateful that his cancer was found early and that it did not require radiation or chemotherapy treatments.
“There’s people going through a lot worse stuff than that,” Crum said.
This also wasn’t the first time a regular check-up led to early detection for Crum’s family. In 2010, doctors found breast cancer when Mimi went for a mammogram, which allowed them to treat it before it became a serious problem.
Crum added that he appreciated all the support he and his family received from the community and co-workers, and he had nothing but praise for the medical professionals who treated him.
Crum recently went for his three-month check-up after his second surgery. The bone and PET scan showed that his cancer had not spread, and in general, he is feeling good.
“I’m left with nine-tenths of a kidney,” Crum said, “which seems to be doing just fine.”

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Relay for Life is Friday
This year’s Marion County Relay for Life event begins at 7 p.m., Friday, June 14, at Lebanon Middle School. The event will be held outside, but the gymnasium will be available in case of rain.
That same day, the American Red Cross is holding a blood drive and will be at LMS from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.
The Relay for Life survivor’s ceremony will begin at 7 p.m., a live auction will be held at 9 p.m., and the luminary ceremony will begin at 10 p.m.
There are 16 teams this year, and all of the teams’ activities and games will begin at 11 p.m. Each team will also be having a silent auction at each of their campsites.
The Marion County Cattleman will be cooking during the event, and Sen. Jimmy Higdon will be providing breakfast at 5:30 a.m., Saturday.
The event officially ends at 7 a.m., Saturday, June 15.