While setting up for a concert in the Outer Banks in the spring of 2003, Bruce Crump asked one of his Daddy-Oh bandmates to take a look at his neck. His successful New Year’s resolution to get in shape had revealed more than a leaner body: As Crump shed the pounds, something was left behind that he hadn’t noticed before — a grape-sized lump on the left side of his neck. Keyboard player Kevin Smith, an OB-GYN by trade, wasn’t sure about a diagnosis, but the knot was definitely abnormal, and he recommended that Crump see an ear, nose and throat specialist as soon as possible.
Four months later, difficulty swallowing ended Crump’s procrastination, and he found himself in the Chesterfield office of Dr. Nicholas Tarasidis, who threaded a flexible fiber-optic scope through Bruce’s nose to get clear view of the nasal passageway and into the throat. After removing the tube, Tarasidis shook his head. “I am deeply concerned,” he said. The diagnosis? Cancer. Biopsy results later confirmed Tarasidis’ hunch and revealed that Crump had three cancerous growths, one on each side of his neck and one in the back of the throat.
In the spring of 1976, during Crump’s senior year in a Jacksonville, Florida, high school, a friend had told him about a band playing at La Vida’s, a club in nearby Neptune Beach. After listening to Molly Hatchet play hits from Bad Company, Lynyrd Skynyrd, 38 Special and others, Crump was hooked. “I saved enough money for some drums and I put up an ad that said, ‘Drummer looking for work. Eight years experience.’ It was more like eight hours since I set up the drums,” he says. The intent was to play in a band, any band.
Still a teenager, Crump’s ultimate plan was to become a marine biologist and jump on a surfboard at every opportunity. The drums were just a fun diversion. Then Banner Thomas, Molly Hatchet’s bass player, phoned Crump and invited him to audition.
“They thought I was terrible!” Crump says. “But they saw some determination in me and hired me.” Lacking any formal training, he got to work and taught himself to play by drumming along with recorded music.
What started out as a cover-band gig gradually transformed into writing and performing original material throughout the Southeast. On Dec. 24, 1977, the band signed a recording contract with Epic Records. Their first album, Molly Hatchet, was released in 1978 and went multiplatinum. The band’s bookings immediately jumped, and they found themselves touring with the likes of Bob Seger, Cheap Trick, Journey and the Rolling Stones.
Then just 21 years old, Bruce Crump was in the middle of a life-changing experience.
When he was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 46, Crump’s life bore little resemblance to the one he was living during his time in Molly Hatchet. Not that he necessarily minded.
“People liked you because of what you did, not because of who you are,” he says of his time in the band. “They didn’t really know anything about you.”
In the years since he’d left Molly Hatchet for the final time in 1990, Crump had been married and divorced four times, with the unions producing four children; he’d begun a career as a Realtor; and he’d settled in Chesterfield County with his current wife, Nancy, and their two children, Jaden and Kyle.
In the fall of 1998, Crump was in Richmond auditioning for a band when he was introduced to Nancy Sontag, who was friends with a member of the group. His first impression? She was “drop-dead gorgeous.”
As for Nancy, she wasn’t particularly attracted to Crump at first. “I thought he looked like a surf rat,” she recalls. A first date, however, allowed Nancy to see beyond Crump’s exterior, and she found his invitation to go to a casual lunch and do some shopping to be a refreshing change.
The two were engaged on a pier at Virginia Beach in April 1999, following a Bryan Adams concert. The joining of Episcopal Bruce to Jewish Nancy proved to be a challenge. “We couldn’t get married in the Episcopal Church or a synagogue, so I just opened the phone book and started looking for a nondenominational church,” Crump says. The Rev. Steven Carpenter of Countryside Christian Church in Midlothian, now Journey Christian Church, agreed to marry the couple on the condition that after their honeymoon, they would return for one Sunday service.
Soon after their April 2000 wedding, the Crumps fulfilled their promise, visiting Countryside Christian as husband and wife.
“When we walked in, the band was playing the most uplifting music.” Crump recalls. That was his introduction to “praise music,” and he was hooked, eventually filling in on the drums for the band. “This new praise music was God’s welcome home,” he says.
In the wake of Crump’s cancer diagnosis, a treatment schedule was developed, but attacking his cancer would leave collateral damage. Radiation often destroys taste buds and saliva glands. It sometimes causes a sore throat severe enough that the patient is left unable to take nourishment by mouth, thus requiring the implantation of a feeding tube. Two weeks prior to his first session, however, Crump was told that he was a candidate for a new treatment called Intensity Modulated Radiation Therapy (IMRT). This procedure would require Crump to lie in a semi-reclining position while a device applied varying levels of targeted radiation as it circled his head and neck. The 15-minute treatments would be performed five days a week for six weeks at CJW Medical Center’s Johnston Willis campus. Crump was told that although the IMRT treatment had shown positive results in others, if it failed, surgeons would have no choice but to perform a “radical neck dissection” and cut open his throat to remove the lymph nodes. This could result in a loss of function in the neck and shoulder muscles, nerve damage, loss of movement in the lower lip, numbness in the tongue or ear, and chronic pain.
After undergoing IMRT, Crump’s condition was tenuous at best. The once-vibrant musician was present in body only, with no memory of visits to the doctor’s office, and Nancy thought the end was near.
“One day I woke up and said, ‘I feel better,’ ” Crump remembers. “Nancy said, ‘Better than what?’ I said, ‘Better than I did yesterday.’ That’s when Nancy told me that I had been out of it for 10 days.”
The medical costs weren’t fully covered by Crump’s insurance, so friends and former bandmates decided to join forces to raise money to help out. On Nov. 2, 2003, musicians from around the country performed at a benefit concert held at the Canal Club in Richmond. Autographed guitars were offered for auction, and band members mingled with the crowd. By night’s end, more than $10,000 had been raised for the cause.
“The generosity moved me to tears.” says Crump. “Especially when it came from people I didn’t even know.”
Meanwhile, Crump had once again developed difficulty swallowing. His cancer hadn’t returned, but doctors determined that Crump was one of the 2 percent of patients who experienced serious side effects from radiation treatment. Simply put, Crump’s throat was closing.
He underwent countless esophageal dilations, during which a tube is passed through the mouth to the back of the throat in an attempt to stretch the esophageal opening. Although each procedure appeared successful, the esophagus would quickly close again. Doctors then resorted to implanting a feeding tube into Crump’s abdomen to bypass his narrowed esophagus. Taking no food by mouth, he struggled to maintain sufficient weight. A trans-hiatal esophagectomy, in which part of the esophagus is removed and the stomach is stretched and lifted to join to the remaining esophagus, allowed doctors to remove the feeding tube in 2007, and Crump can now receive liquids and some regular food by mouth. He continues to undergo dilations about once per week and is scheduled for further testing and possible procedures to try to correct the problem.
Today, he finds comfort in comparing his ordeal to that of the Apostle Paul, who suffered from an unknown malady referred to in the Bible as a “thorn” in his flesh. Like Paul, who eventually accepted the thorn because God’s grace was sufficient, Crump also feels that the Lord’s grace is sufficient, the grace of having a loving family and the medical resources to bring him through such an ordeal. After all, Crump notes, “It beats the alternative.” There is no visible sign of damage to his throat, neck or mouth, and he has retained his ability to sing when it was expected that he would be left with only a whisper.
Crump walks each year in the Massey Cancer Center’s fund raising challenge in conjunction with the Ukrop’s Monument Avenue 10K under the team name of “Crump’s Cancer Crushers.” He continues to drum for Journey Christian Church’s praise band and plays with Gator Country, a band made up of various Molly Hatchet alumni and friends, about twice a month. October will mark five years of cancer-free life for the 50-year-old Crump. His way of celebrating this milestone is to participate in cancer fundraisers like “Rock for Life.”
“Ten or 20 years ago, I had no priorities, other than writing and performing, because someone else decided them for me,” Crump says. “Now my priorities are being a husband, father and Christian. I haven’t achieved my goals yet, but it’s a lifelong process.”
He describes his metamorphosis this way: “Have you ever noticed that the mountaintops are usually barren but the valleys are green with growth? Well life has mountaintops and valleys. The mountaintop experiences are great, but it’s in the valleys that you grow.”