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Reality show contestant demonstrates what it takes to survive cancer

POSTED October 23, 2009 8:24 p.m.
A crowd of university students stared at Chad Crittenden in surprise, shock, and a little awe as he pulled off the lower portion of his pant leg to reveal a prosthetic foot. The California State University, Stanislaus students had just seen Crittenden walk, climb steps, and even hop off of the stage without any hint of a disability. That was the point of Crittenden’s sudden revelation, that his disability did not change who he was or what he was capable of.
The audience, mostly members of fraternities and sororities at CSU Stanislaus, packed the campus event center Thursday evening to listen to Crittenden’s lecture.
Crittenden was a contestant on season nine of the CBS television series, “Survivor Vanuatu.” He lost his right foot to cancer a year before the show, but he chose not to reveal it until after his team had seen his ability to hike, carry heavy loads, and make camp just like the rest of them.
“I wanted to see if they would revert to their preconceived notions of what disabled people are capable of,” Crittenden said.
Crittenden grew up in Half Moon Bay, and was active throughout his childhood and into adulthood. He said that he enjoyed cross country skiing, and especially soccer. The UC Davis graduate majored in international relations and taught elementary school before his appearance on the show.
One day, during a mountain biking trip, Crittenden took off his shoes and socks and put his feet up on a picnic table. His friend Alan noticed a bump on the bottom of Crittenden’s foot, and suggested that it might be a tumor.
“I told him ‘dude, you don’t get tumors of the bottom of your foot,’” Crittenden said.
He went to a pediatrist and was diagnosed with plantar fasciitis, a type of wart commonly found on the bottom of the foot. With soccer season coming up he opted to have the growth removed.
Crittenden was teaching third grade at the time, so he got a substitute teacher for Friday and the following Monday, and took a four day sick leave to recover from his minor foot surgery. It was during this break that his pediatrist called and told him the bad news; his growth was probably cancerous. His doctor sent a sample to a lab to confirm the cancer.
A few days later Crittenden went to his doctor’s office and received a new diagnosis, his growth was not a wart but Synovial Sarcoma, a rare form of cancer.
“All I could think of was ‘Poor guy. He’s a pediatrist, he shouldn’t be telling me I have cancer,’” Crittenden said.
He went home and researched foot amputation, and came across several Web sites for challenged athletes. He found out that with the use of a prosthetic foot he would be able to play sports again. Shortly after that, Crittenden had his right foot amputated from the knee down.
January of that year, he went back to teaching third grade. His class gave him a big welcome back, and he said he was happy to be there. He explained to his students what happened to his foot and showed them the prosthetic. He even joked with them that he could shoot lasers out of it if they didn’t behave.
“It was great. The kids had no judgment,” Crittenden said.
He settled back into his life with work and family. Then one night, he saw an ad on television that said “Survivor” was accepting audition tapes. He had been considering trying out for the show since the first season, and now seemed like an opportune time.
“After the all-star season, I figured they were ready for something completely new and different,” Crittenden said.
He made a tape and sent it in. He was accepted for the show, and he and the producers decided it would be best for him to hide his prosthetic foot until he was a little more settled into camp.
“It was sort of a social experiment, to see how they would react,” Crittenden said of his fellow survivors.
He was the tenth person voted off in season nine.
Crittenden said that because “Survivor Vanuatu” was men versus women, he was voted off for being a guy when the tribes merged.
“I realized it was good to be voted off that way and not because of something that I did or didn’t do,” Crittenden said.
To contact Andrea Goodwin, e-mail agoodwin@turlockjournal.com or call 634-9141 ext. 2003.
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