by Mike Bullington, EDN
After four years of routine cancer screenings raised concern and after four subsequent biopsies proved inconclusive, his doctors at the Oregon Urology Institute finally found the prostate cancer. It was January 28, 2010—just two years after resigning from lead news anchor at KEZI 9 News and only fourteen difficult months after losing the Republican ticket for Oregon Secretary of State—and Rick drove his black 2008 Acura onto I-105, put a camcorder on the dash and made a tearful confession to the blogosphere—to the world—that he had cancer and must undergo radiation treatment
Rick’s blog (rickdancer.com) is a collection of personal vision, insights and, even in the best of times, a study in heart-on-the-sleeves living. But this was beyond anything that he had done online. This was real, this was personal, this was traumatic, this is cancer.
Almost instantly the feedback came. Men, prostate cancer patients from all around the world, wrote to him, thanking him for saying exactly what they were thinking. His wife and family were devastated—this after two already difficult years with their share of late nights and personal pain. Rick had no plan B when he resigned his position as top anchor in a all or nothing bid for Secretary of State.
And he almost pulled it off.
With no political experience and some Sarah Palin-esque moments on television answering hard questions that he admits now he was not ready for, he gathered 47 percent of the vote.
And if he had to be in a free fall from putting everything on the line, losing, and then facing his worst nightmare—cancer—then he knew no other way to do it than with the pedal to the floor, the spotlights on and the world watching.
It hit him when he was driving back from a business trip in Washington state: “If I have cancer, what can people stop me from doing?” He could do anything. He could dance in the streets if he wanted.
With camera man in tow he approached a table of ladies at the Subway restaurant in Kalama, Washington and pleaded with them to join him in dancing in the street—to celebrate his emancipation from an old, uptight Rick Dancer hungry for success to a new, younger Rick hungry for life. No, no, he pleaded, this thing—cancer—“it is not bad thing, it is a good thing.”
Finally, after an awkward moment of understandable dismay from the Subway patrons accustomed only to sandwiches made without any unpleasantries, the store owner broke the tension by calling out, “Honey, I’ll dance with you.”
Out they went onto First Avenue in Kalama, Washington, Rick Dancer, media guy and an anonymous franchise owner to do a quick shuffle and declare that Rick had placed a line in the sand, drawing a boundary between living life their way and living life his way.
If he was going to have cancer, and there was clearly nothing he could do about that decision, then he would control how he handled it. He chose a new, promising yet un-proven radiation treatment, Calypso radiation, and became something of a poster child for prostate cancer. He approached his doctors at Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU) and suggested they put a camera on him—film the entire 28-week treatment process. Rick took no money for the assignment and the company jumped at the chance to put a media guy like Dancer on their website.
In each of a series of six videos produced for OHSU and filmed at the Knight Cancer Institute in Beaverton, Dancer introduces himself, “Hi, my name is Rick and I have prostate cancer. This is my treatment story.” It is a surreal experience for someone who was, in the past, back in Eugene, back in another lifetime, more accustomed to turning the camera on the intimate details of other people’s lives. Or for a man who similarly looked into the camera and Oregon’s living rooms and said, “I’m Rick Dancer and I’m asking for your vote.”
In Episode 2: Beacon Transponder® Implantation, an 11 minute video, Dancer lies on his side while attendants work behind, out of his view. His face looks different. The stern professionalism is gone and he looks, all at once, years younger and undeniably older. A young boy’s face and innocent blue eyes are framed by the gray hair of 50-year old man. A man who has achieved success—a six figure salary at KEZI, a beautiful wife and two strong, healthy boys. Cancer levels everything. The gray hair, which the radiation will not take, looks out of place on a boy’s tender face. Blue eyes open wide, looking, searching for what is next: the pain of a needle piercing his prostate. But the blue eyes cannot see behind him, through the white sheets, and he waits for the stab. It is a truly humbling look on his face.
Three GPS transmitters, or Calypso beacons, are inserted into Rick’s prostate to guide, via triangulation, the attack of the radiation beam. The hope is that by pinpointing the radiation to within millimeters of the cancer there will be less collateral damage to the rectum and sexual nerve endings that surround the prostate. Damage to either of those often leads to life-altering side effects—incontinence and impotency.
In Episode 4: First Treatment, Dancer is on his back on a table, pants down, covered by a white sheet. It is the first of 28 such treatments he must endure. Hydraulics raise him up and back under the radiation machine, his hands clenched in fists and held close to his chest. A green laser dances down his face, along his chest and over his crotch. A second laser runs from his shoulders to his feet, down the side of his body. It is a place that no one would want to be, not unless they were certain it would save their life.
Black dots have been tattooed on Rick’s hip which the nurses use position his body to the green lasers, like leveling a shelf on a wall. A click of a button and the radiation machine begins to gyrate slowly around Dancer. The fear is palpable. A white plate is positioned inches above Rick’s waist, a “Calypso plate,” which homes in on the three beacons in order to guide the upcoming radiation beam. More last-minute adjustments and verifications are made and then, that’s it. The cameraman and nurses retreat to a control room, safe from the harming radiation that will be introduced into the room. The radiation machine makes two passes, shooting a destructive beam into Dancer’s body, into the cancer and, hopefully, little else.
In 1998, Rick was one of the first reporters to arrive at Thurston High School in Springfield after Kip Kinkel shot 27 students, killing two. It was there that a defining characteristic of Dancer began to emerge. He was told by authorities to ask family members to stay away from the scene. Rick, who had come to tears on the live broadcast, could not fathom telling panicked parents to stay at home and wait for authorities to notify them, possibly telling them that their children were victims of the rampage. So he went on the air with a message: “The official word is to stay away from Thurston High, but if I had kids who had not come home from school yet, I sure as heck would be down here.”
His human handling of stories, such as the Thurston High story, had cemented him into the local community. Early in his career, however, KEZI management tried to get rid of him. Surveys had shown that Rick Dancer was a not favored newscaster, that he didn’t give off that local boy image that local news is always trying so hard to impress. Management let him know that he was working on borrowed time and that they intended to replace him. For what Rick calls, “one of the hardest years of my life,” he worked the ten hour days with the professional smile put in place over a fear of the axe falling at any time. Rather than sit around and sulk, Dancer went out to the people.
His strategy was a simple one. If the people of Eugene would get behind Dancer, there was nothing management could do to him. He could, in a sense, beat them at their own game. He started doing public service pieces after hours: Easter Seals, graduations, talks at schools and countless charity events. He immersed himself in the community that he was reporting—and depending on.
The hard work payed off. A year to the day of the first talk by management they approached him with a different tune. The most recent survey showed that he was well received in the Eugene/Springfield demographic.
And then came the campaign for Secretary of State.
With success around him, all he needed to do was sit tight and enjoy the ride of a career on easy street. Instead, he resigned from KEZI with a controversial last night of broadcasting, using precious, expensive, airtime to announce his candidacy. With his family and friends behind him he put it all on the line, grasping ever for more, and failed.
Dancer was an enigma in the political scene. Both parties criticized him. To the Republicans he was too liberal, too progressive. He attended rallies in support of gay rights to which he was asked by the organizers, “What are you doing here?” He dreamt, like a man he greatly admires, former Oregon Governor Mark Hatfield, of reaching across the aisle and of finding compromise. He thought the illegal alien issue was blown way out of proportion by conservatives.
Character assassinations flew in letters to the editors of local papers. He was accused of being egotistical, inexperienced and out of step with Oregon. Lane county went with him at the polls. In fact, most of the state voted for Rick, but the race was lost in Portland, which voted strongly against him, giving his opponent a six percent margin.
“It was the worst and best thing I have ever done,” Dancer says of his campaign. “People tear you apart. They were trying to paint me into this right-wing guy and it’s like, ‘You don’t even know me!’”
“I’m a progressive-liberal Republican. Try to put that into a party,” Rick says, remembering the people who told him he can’t be both Republican and progressive. “You can’t tell me who I am. That is who I am. Maybe there is not a party to back me, but that is who I am.”
Rick Dancer took an F in high school speech class because he could not get up in front of his peers. It was a spell of fear that had existed since his childhood, where he was a somewhat lonely, shy boy growing up in a middle-class “house and culture where mistakes were frowned upon. There was little wiggle room when it came to how you do things and why.”
That child who always longed to fit in—dreamed of fitting in—made it. He fit in. Only now, he doesn’t want to fit in any longer.
“Once you start to fit into it, you become part of it, and then you lose something: individuality,” Dancer says, nuzzled into a leather couch in the back room of the Humble Bagel in Eugene. “If I am really open to who people are, nothing you can do is going to offend me. That is relationship. That is what we have taken out of politics and our culture.”
When Rick was doing media stories for KEZI, some of the stories changed him. They were the people stories, like the story of Nathan Madsen, a missing nine year old boy from Veneta. Nathan had been rounding up cattle with his family near Chemult, Oregon when he was suddenly nowhere to be found. His family searched in vain before contacting the authorities. Hundreds of volunteers combed the woods looking for the boy. Rick drove the four hour round trip to report on the search every day for weeks.
“It shook me,” Dancer remembers. “I’d be in tears all the way home.”
The following July, more than six months after Nathan vanished, his bones were found. Rick went with Nathan’s father and a cameraman by horseback to the site of the body.
The experience showed him that he could be more than just a talking head vying for ratings. It showed him he could be human and a reporter.
That passion for people is what is fueling Rick now, in the days after cancer. He has found his niche and he has no intention of letting it go. That passion is fueling projects like Look Me in The Eye, a campaign to bring an awareness “that people with disabilities are in this community and that they have something to offer. I am continually flabbergasted at the abilities of people with so-called disabilities.”
“These people are my family,” Rick says, “They don’t hold it back… I need that, I crave that in my life.”
The developmental disabilities story is just the main crutch he sees as a message that is so much bigger.
“We need to look people in the eye rather than what their color is or what their sexuality is,” Dancer says. “If you are a Republican, go hang out with Democrats. If you think you don’t like gay people, go hang out with some gay people. You’ll have a great time.”
It has been just over a year since treatment ended at OHSU and Rick’s test results show that the cancer has retreated. His PSA number (an indicator used to detect prostate cancer) are down from 20—fives times the accepted safe zone—to 2.6. He looks strong. Any hint of thickness in his face from his KEZI days is gone. His arms and shoulders are noticeably toned. During radiation treatment he took 45 mile bike rides, jogged three days per week and lifted weights. He has suffered only minimal side effects. None of the life-altering fears have come to pass.
He has learned other things. He knows, better than many of us, that he is going to die. He has brushed up against his own mortality. He has learned about the cost of putting success before happiness. He has learned that he does not have to be perfect at everything. His biggest lesson, however, came from the mouth of a child he met while doing a community service spot at a local school.
Rick’s standing up before a kindergarden class, standing tall and professional in his neatly tailored suit and polished shoes in front of all these little people who are sitting on the floor before him cross-legged and wide-eyed, and he is being moved to tears about all these lives before him. The teachers are standing back, behind the kids, wiping tears from their own eyes, feeling compassion for these children that will grow up into a world where hate, division, and prejudices still exist. One small boy raises his hand in response to Rick’s talk about being an individual and says, quietly, shyly, in the meekest of voices, not too unlike a young Rick Dancer, “Perhaps, Mr. Dancer, we were never meant to fit in.”