Pamela Crouch of Moline is a true survivor.
A four-time cancer survivor — and former longtime executive director of Living Proof Exhibit — she recently won a Quad City Arts grant to channel her experiences into a self-published book, “Dr. Cooper’s Guide to Cancer Recovery: How I Helped My Mom Beat This Stupid Disease Four Times.”
Though Crouch’s “Doggie Howser” obviously didn’t go to medical school or can’t write, her 15-year-old beagle has been a critical part of her cancer treatment and recovery.
“My faith and family has gotten me through this, but also my choice of humor and Cooper,” she said recently. “Cooper didn’t care if I was exhausted. He didn’t care if I was bald. If I came home full of tubes, he actually kind of thought it was silly that I wasn’t hungry sometimes, ’cause he’s always hungry.”
“It was just combining the humor and the love of a dog, it kind of started coming to me,” Crouch said of doing a photo-filled book, written from Cooper’s perspective. “It’s a book that you’re going to be able to use if you’re in chemotherapy and if you have family members and kids. It’s universal.”
A veteran photographer, in 2018, she entered a photo of Cooper in the Living Proof “A Visualization of Hope” exhibit from cancer survivors at the Figge Art Museum. “So many people came up to me, saying how much they loved the photo because their pet helped them through the cancer journey.”
In 2010, Crouch co-founded Living Proof (which offers free programs that provide therapeutic benefits of the arts to people impacted by cancer), after her first diagnosis of breast cancer in 2008. She was its first executive director, through last October.
After Crouch’s first cancer, and she lost her hair, it was discovered on her head that she had skin cancer. In 2018, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and her breast cancer returned in 2019. She’s now in remission.
In a summary of her new book (for the $2,264 Quad City Arts grant she won), Crouch wrote as Cooper:
“I didn’t really understand why she was so sick, and couldn’t take me for long walks. I knew that she loved me and that I loved her, so I stayed by her side until she felt better. Her first two cancers came right on top of each other. I thought that she was very smart to get them together so that the medicine could work on both at the same time.
“We lived a happy life for a long time. It was filled with lots of long walks, treats, and snuggles,” the mom’s best friend wrote. “Then Mom got cancer again in 2018 and there were fewer long walks. Then the walks started again! Then Mom got a different cancer in 2019, and our long walks stopped for a while. I decided that if we couldn’t talk long walks, I should write a book. Mom typed it because I don’t have thumbs.”
How a dog helps healing
Besides simple companionship, Cooper has been priceless as Crouch copes with lymphedema, an annoying side effect of cancer — swelling of the leg or arm, due to blockage in the lymphatic system, which is part of the immune system.
“When I’m having a flare-up, he has been known to come up and put his head, kind of like on my chest between my chest and my arm, which is where the lymphedema is always the worst,” she said. “He will curl up there. And when I’m having a flare-up, that’s the only time he does that. Again, he’s brilliant.”
“When I’m feeling fine, he doesn’t do that,” Crouch (who works on the Figge Art Museum development team) said, noting Cooper also has taught her life lessons.
“The best things you learn from your dog is to be present, to be in the moment — to get excited,” she said. “He can find joy in pretty much anything and just he’s always in the moment. And I think those are really important, especially when you’re going through treatment and I’ve been dealing with cancer for 14 years now. That can be overwhelming, so just being around an animal, being around your best friend, your dog friend. It’s just teaching you to be in the moment and enjoy the moment that’s there. I think that’s an invaluable lesson.”
It hasn’t been hard Crouch to put the book’s text in Cooper’s voice.
“Because we talk in his voice all the time,” she said. “Anybody who has a cat or a dog or rabbit. I don’t know. We’ve always given him a voice. And my husband Chris does the same thing. So he gives Cooper a voice.”
“That was pretty easy,” Crouch said, adding she’s talked to Midwest Writing Center executive director Ryan Collins about setting down her thoughts on the page.
“He’s been so incredibly encouraging. So it’s just one of those things — we start noodling around and jotting down ideas. And then this just started falling into place, when I allowed myself to kind of step into my own creativity again,” she said. “And it’s been wonderful. It’s just, it’s a lot of fun.”
Writing also part of recovery
As Living Proof Exhibit has helped so many others to use creativity to cope with cancer and find healing, the new book also helps Crouch to recover, grow and persevere.
“The arts have always been there for me,” she said. “Prior to cancer, I was in theater and vocal music. I always kept — every time, I’m always reaching back to the arts. That’s either the visual arts or the written word. I garden — I create in my garden. I don’t do as much performance.”
“Reaching back into the arts to be able to talk to address some of the fear, some of the worry, some of the humor, frankly,” Crouch said. “Sometimes you have look at some of this with a sense of humor, being able to use that to cope.”
Through writing and photography, that’s really helped her gain a new lease on life and a fresh, healthy attitude. (Cooper would say, “A new leash on life.”)
“I think that has really helped me communicate to myself. A lot of people journal and I never was a journaler, but just being able to go out and paint, go out and create something and now writing more and getting these thoughts together, it’s really helped,” Crouch said.
The book doesn’t cover her 14-year journey so much as what cancer does to someone.
“From a dog’s point of view, being gassy from chemotherapy is heaven,” Crouch said. “But to a human, to explain to other humans, this is a side effect and it can be embarrassing. The book is trying to say, Mom’s really tired. I love naps. Mom doesn’t have any hair; Mom has have to have radiation. And so some of the things that are going on, that I had surgery, that I had tubes coming out of me.
“I’m addressing some of those in his voice,” she said. “It helps people also identify, these are some of the things that just happen because you have cancer, but they’re addressed in a cute vehicle. I’m hoping that it will help people to have conversations.”
Weighty topic, light approach
“I’m approaching this book with a dog voice,” Crouch said, noting it’s also a great way to tackle a heavy topic with a light, accessible touch.
“I want to keep a little sense of humor in all of it. I’m really avoiding the angst that accompanies cancer,” she said. “On each page, there’ll be a photo, then a simple comment and a simple hashtag. I just want it to be kind of something that Identifies some of what happens when you’re going through cancer, but it’s not a heavy book at all. I’m hoping it’s crazy and fun.”
Crouch hopes that children will be able to learn from it and relate to it — whether the issue is cancer or any health challenge.
“Whether they’re facing it or just a parent does, then they’re going to say oh, Cooper’s mom was really tired,” she said. “My mom’s really tired too, I’m going to just play quietly, or I’m going to nap. Cooper’s mom had to go through chemotherapy and she didn’t like to eat. You know, my mom doesn’t really like to eat either. So I’m hoping that everyone can just kind of look at it and say, I’m able to relate to it.”
Crouch is working with Terry Van Winkle and Davenport Printing, to have the 32-page book laid out and printed.
“What I love about this community is how incredibly supportive everyone is,” she said. “The Midwest Writing Center is so supportive of writers. We have photographers who are so supportive of other photographers.
“It’s a shout-out to everybody who continues to support people communicating through the arts,” Crouch said, noting Quad City Arts is financially supporting many area artists.
She wants to get it done as soon as possible, to get the book at the local cancer centers and for Gilda’s Club chemo bags for people in treatment.
Quad City Arts’ Arts Dollars — which recently announced about $140,000 in 2022 grants — is supported by The Hubbell-Waterman Foundation and the Illinois Arts Council Agency.