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I Beat Brain Cancer and Got a Shout Out From Pearl Jam

bill castrovince family
September 10, 2020

By Bill Castrovince, as told to Stephanie Watson

It was September 2011, and my mind was totally focused on the road trip I was about to take with my fiancée, Carolyn. We were headed to Toronto to see two concerts by my favorite band, Pearl Jam. Unfortunately, my brain had a very different set of events planned for me.

At the time, I was an anchor and reporter for the TV show, High School Sports Insider. My job was to cover football, volleyball, swimming, and other sports at high schools in the Cleveland, Ohio, area, where I am from. I absolutely loved what I did -- so much so that, before we hit the road, I stopped off at the production company to finish some highlights for the show. It was a Saturday, and the studio was completely empty. I figured I could get the clips done and be on the road within 30 minutes.

I was getting ready to finish the highlights when my head started to feel odd. The sensations were a little bit off, as if I couldn’t connect my mind to my thoughts. I’d had the same feeling a couple of times before, but always when I was alone. This time Carolyn was standing there, asking me questions that I couldn’t answer. I just gave her an odd look and stayed silent.

She realized something was wrong with me. The whole episode lasted about 5 minutes. Then I came out of it.

Just to be on the safe side, we stopped by a University Hospitals satellite that was right near my work. Although I was only 39 years old at the time, I thought I might have had a seizure or a stroke. They ran some tests and said, “We’re not sure what this is, so you’re going to need to go to our hospital in downtown Cleveland.” I replied, “We’re leaving for Toronto to see Pearl Jam. Can I do this when I get back?” They said, “No, we’re putting you into an ambulance and you’re going downtown.”

Shocking Results

On our way to Cleveland, I called and texted with family and friends. At that point I assumed I’d had a stroke.

The hospital ran more tests. Then they gave me a diagnosis I never expected. The doctor made everyone else leave the room before telling me, “You have a tumor. It’s on the top left side of your head.” I said, “Get out! You are kidding me, right?” She said it was no joke.

Surgery

My surgeon didn’t know what type of tumor I had -- only that it needed to come out right away. This was on Monday. I was scheduled to have surgery that Friday.

I quickly worked the numbers. “Pearl Jam is playing on Wednesday in Hamilton, Ontario. Can I make it there and back in time for my surgery?” I asked.

My surgeon said, “You’re not going anywhere.”

I figured I’d better do what he said. On Friday I had the surgery. It was strange, because I was awake for parts of it. The surgeon wanted to make sure he didn’t damage any areas I needed to move or talk. He asked me during the procedure to move my feet, wiggle my toes, and grab his hand. I was able to do everything he asked me to do, but it was an odd situation I will never forget.

50-50 Chance

It wasn’t until after my surgery that my doctors told me the tumor they’d removed was a glioblastoma, an aggressive and often deadly form of brain cancer. They said there were four grades of glioblastoma. Four was the worst. That was the kind I had.

My doctor told me that about 50% of people with my kind of tumor don’t survive a year. My odds were 50-50. I called my brother Anthony and started to cry. I didn’t want Carolyn and my mother, who were there with me, to see how upset I was. The possibility that I might not live another year was overwhelming.

Then my surgeon told me he thought he’d gotten most of the tumor out -- GREAT NEWS!  I followed up surgery with rounds of chemotherapy and radiation, which wasn’t easy. I still get regular MRIs, and it’s a relief to hear the tumor has not returned.

Learning to Speak Again

After I woke up in recovery after surgery, my family came to see me, one by one. I remember when my other brother Joe came in, I thought, “That’s my brother! What’s his name again?” Something wasn’t quite right with the wiring in my brain.

The tumor and surgery had compromised my speech. I remember the therapist showing me pictures and asking me what they were. I’d say, “He has eight legs. He lives in the ocean.” but I couldn’t come up with the word “octopus.” To this day, I still have aphasia -- trouble coming up with words. I can recognize faces, but I struggle to match names to them. I’ve done speech therapy three times and I still struggle.

Aside from the lingering issues from my surgery, I feel pretty good. I wasn’t a runner before my diagnosis, but I decided to start afterward. I got to do a 5k race in 2016, which ended at FirstEnergy Stadium, where the Cleveland Browns play. Running a few times a week has dropped my weight by 25 pounds. 

Pearl Jam, at Last!

Since my surgery, Carolyn and I were able to keep our original wedding date (July 14, 2012). We now have a daughter, Olivia, who is 4 years old. She wasn’t even supposed to have been a possibility because of my tumor, but -- surprise!

I was able to go back to work for a while. Slowly I worked back up to doing on-air reporting and anchoring again. In 2019, I stopped working to watch Olivia full time, which has been the toughest and most rewarding job yet.

Thanks to Carolyn’s support, I started to feel better and better, and we did finally see Pearl Jam -- nine times! (22 shows overall -- and counting). In 2016, Carolyn and I were headed down to Tampa to see my father, and Pearl Jam was playing there. I had a photo of Olivia in a Pearl Jam onesie. Before I left for Florida, I posted it on the band’s Facebook page. I wrote, “Hi, Mr. Pearl Jam! My daddy beat brain cancer to make me, and he says you helped him -- thank you! Our song is ‘Hard to Imagine.’ Can you play it in Tampa?  Love, Olivia.”

I thought it was a long shot. They don’t normally play that song. But then, at one point during the concert, I heard the first guitar lick of “Hard to Imagine.” I thought, “Holy cow, they are going to play it!” Then, Eddie Vedder said, “This goes out to a guy…” I couldn’t hear what he was saying, but I thought, “Hey! Someone else must have requested this song!” Then I heard him say “cancer,” and I thought, “Wow! Someone requested this song who had cancer. … Wait a minute. … No way!” Then Eddie started talking about a baby, and I was floored. Carolyn started bawling.

I still can’t believe that happened. I still can't believe that I'm even here, let alone a dad. Once in a while I take a step back and I'm like, what? A cancer survivor? Just when the road wasn't looking so good, it turned and took me to the highest point that I didn't even think was possible.

Nine years and still cancer-free. Hard to imagine, indeed.

 

 

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