Capturing a Journey
Chris Thibault has spent his professional career helping companies and institutions — from MassMutual to Spirit of Springfield — blend words and pictures to send meaningful and powerful messages. Now, he and his wife and business partner, Missy, are producing one for and about him, and certainly not the one he planned at age 36. It’s about living with, running a business with — and hopefully not dying from — a disease that’s not only attacking his body, but that recently took the life of his brother. They’re going public and telling this story to maybe help Chris and the family, but certainly to help others.
By George O’Brien
“All I know is that I have been behind on projects for the past six months. It pains me to tell clients, ‘I’m sorry, we just fell a little behind.’ And I have said that over and over again. I not only want to do good work, I want to do great work. And not only that, I want my clients to have the best customer service possible. Excellent work, done on time. I’ve created unique systems within my company to do just that. But cancer is a bitch.”
That’s just one of the many powerful passages from a blog post that Chris Thibault wrote a few weeks back at www.christeebo.com/.howtocancer.
It came complete with a title — “How to Run a Production Company While Living (or Dying) of Stage 4 Cancer” — that hits the reader right between the eyes and almost compels that person to move on to the next sentence and the next gripping photograph.
And that was the whole idea.
“I haven’t figured that one out yet,” wrote Thibault, 36, president of Chris Teebo Films, in reference to the question posed by that working title. “And to be honest, I wrote the title to get your attention so you actually start reading this thing.”
If one keeps reading, they’ll take in a brutally honest portrayal of what it’s like to be told that one has stage 4 cancer, in this case a return of the breast cancer that struck Chris four years ago, only this time with it spreading to several parts of his body — and then live, and work, with both that knowledge and the disease itself.
The blog post is merely the beginning — the first act, if you will — of a larger presentation intended to capture what Thibault called a “journey,” one where no one really knows what’s ahead, where the current path leads, or even whether he will stay on this path.
Elaborating, Thibault and his wife, Missy — who is also a co-worker and business partner, serving Chris Teebo Films as editor and producer, thus the title ‘preditor’ — said they will soon bring a camera directly into their home in an effort to capture this difficult but also compelling time in the lives of everyone in this family of five.
“It will be very weird in the beginning, but if I stick with it, it will become less weird,” he explained. “I’m going to direct it even though I’m going to be living my life.”
Missy agreed about the ‘weird’ part, but said that, ultimately, the family is doing what Chris Teebo Films asks those taking part in its productions to do.
“We’re constantly telling people to ‘just be you and tell us your story,’” she explained. “We tell them to just open up and share their story, and that’s what we’re going to do.”
Before the camera starts rolling, though, Chris and Missy will be getting away for a while to the Vancouver area in Canada. It’s not a vacation, although they may try to relax a bit. Instead, they’re going for some alternative treatments for Chris, specifically hypertherapy (more on that later).
The junket to Canada and the comments you’ll hear about it speak volumes about where the Thibaults are in this journey. They’re searching — for answers, for a possible cure, and for a way a survive the disease that just claimed Chris’ brother, Brandon, a few weeks ago; he ultimately lost a lengthy, difficult fight with melanoma in mid-June.
As noted earlier, they don’t know where the journey will take them. At this point, Chris said the doctors tell him the cancer cannot be stopped; it can only be slowed. His oncologist at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute has offered what Chris called a “menu” of options to battle the cancer, and none have produced what anyone would call encouraging results.
As for the ongoing efforts to chronicle this journey and the upcoming film work in the Thibault home, they are being undertaken in part to help the family. Indeed, donations are requested to help offset the costs of treatment and, really, just pay the bills at a time when Chris is forced to miss more time at work.
But this effort is also intended to help others finding themselves in a similar battle by providing them with words and pictures intended to educate, but also inspire.
For this issue, HCN talked with the Thibaults about their journey and their willingness to go public, as in very public, and share their story.
The Big Picture
“Make no mistake, the cancer cells in my body are on a mission from hell to grow and kill me. Is it stage 4? Yes. Is it considered a terminal illness? Yes. Has it spread to my lungs, spine, ribs, hip, and pelvic bone? Check. Do I cough constantly and get winded from simple things like walking up the stairs? Yessir. Is there a known medical cure? Nope.”
This passage, which succinctly summed up both Thibault’s condition and thought pattern as he talked with HCN, represents more of the frank, sometimes blunt commentary in his blog post, which, again, is designed to tell his story but also relay the feelings of all those who have battled or are currently battling the disease.
He said taking on cancer is, all at once, humbling, frustrating, and especially tiring — mentally as well as physically. There are, as almost everyone who has been through it has said, good days and bad days, but eventually the latter start to seriously outnumber the former. Chris said he still has a number of good days — like the one when he and Missy sat for this interview — meaning there was very little of the coughing and the pain that comes with it. But every day is clouded by the huge question marks about the future.
Before we talk about that, though, we need to go back to last fall and a phone call Chris said he won’t ever forget.
The person at the other end of the line wanted to know what Chris was doing at that moment. Specifically, she wanted to know if he was driving. Apparently, those in the healthcare community are trained to ask that question if they’re going to deliver bad news.
“She said the results from the scan ‘didn’t look good,’” recalled Thibault, who was on a shoot in Boston at the time, adding that she didn’t say much of anything else, which was somewhat annoying to him. And really annoying to Missy, who was, in fact, driving when Chris relayed that skimpy yet distressing news to her.
“I get a text from him that says, ‘doctor says scans don’t look good,’” she recalled. “I said, ‘what the heck does that mean?’”
What it meant was that their lives were going to change in a profound way.
The chest scan in question came after Chris started experiencing what he called “weird symptoms” during his recovery from surgery after he tore his biceps while reaching out and grabbing the treadmill he was on after it had started to tip over (a story told in great detail in the blog post).
“One day, I got on the treadmill and just did a light jog. I found that I couldn’t really catch my breath. Strange. I actually thought it was something in the air at the studio. Maybe the air was a little ‘thick’ that day? But in the coming weeks I had more and more symptoms, persistent cough, strange pain in my leg, and some vision problems.”
And with those symptoms came some commentary from the voice inside his head, commentary in the form of questions — about whether the cancer that had rocked his world years earlier might be back.
In fact, it was. It had metastasized, and there were, as those tests indeed revealed, a number of tumors, as Chris relayed in another poignant passage from his blog.
“‘Too many [tumors] to count,’ the doctor said with a sad, straight-face look that I read as ‘you’re fucked, kid.’”
Chris recalled ‘too many to count.’ Missy remembers hearing ‘innumerable.’ One phrase, one word that mean the same heartbreaking thing.
And so this journey began, and it came — not that there’s a good time — at an extremely bad time, professionally and also personally. With regard to the latter, the Thibaults were now a family of five with the birth of their daughter, Cassidy, a year earlier. Meanwhile, Chris’ brother Brandon was losing his fight with cancer.
As for the former, the business, Chris Teebo Films, was really hitting its stride, producing a wide range of work for a host of regional and national clients that included MassMutual, the pharmaceutical giant Novartis, Bay Path University, Spirit of Springfield, FastenMaster in Agawam, Mercedes-Benz of Springfield, HCN (he has produced sponsor videos for many of the magazine’s events), and many others.
As noted earlier, as the cancer has spread, Chris has found it more difficult to work, although he presses on, a task made easier by the support he’s received from his clients, who have been not only understanding of missed deadlines, but willing to send him more work — including a project for Spirit of Springfield’s 25th anniversary — and assist him in his fight. Peter and Michelle Wirth, owners of the Mercedes dealership, even offered to send cars to take him to treatments.
“The support of the business community has been unreal,” said Chris, adding that he was at first reluctant to tell clients about his condition out of fear they may not have faith that he can finish projects he takes on. But those fears proved ungrounded, and he continues to get new work.
Bringing a Cancer Fight into Focus
“My skinny ass lifted weights for the first time in about 7 months the other day. I’m about 35 pounds lighter than I was back then, mostly all of it muscle weight. … I never realized how much muscle I had in my ass! After losing a bunch of weight, I was towel drying out of the shower and noticed … it wasn’t there! This was at a time when I was really feeling the effects of the tumor in my hip and couldn’t bend down at all. The atrophy in that portion of my body was really noticeable. Still is. It sucks because, a mere half a year earlier, I was physically, and probably mentally, the strongest I have ever been.”
This passage from the blog captures some of the observations, thoughts, and raw emotions that are part and parcel to a cancer fight.
So does this one.
“I am bent over on a hospital chair with my right foot on the floor and my left knee resting on the chair. My pants are pulled down just below my butt. I am sitting alone in a room at Dana Farber bent over with my full ass out, waiting for the nurse to come back into the room. Oh, and the room doesn’t have real doors, just one of those thin hospital curtains. So at any point, someone could walk by and catch a glimpse. Is there anything more humiliating?
‘Did it get cold in here?’ I quietly asked myself.
It felt chilly. I might as well be bending over in front of an open fridge.
The nurse finally comes in.
‘How we doing?’ she asked with an over-the-top caring voice, like a firing squad was about to come in and put some bullets in my crack.
I was anything but fine, of course, mentally and physically, but that’s what you say.”
The nurse in question would proceed to administer what Chris called a large dose of a drug called Fulvestrant, being taken in combination with a newly approved drug called Piqray, made, coincidentally enough, by Novartis.
Ultimately, this combination became the third different set of chemo and hormonal treatments to have been tried, and all have failed. So Chris and Missy — the two are in this fight together, every step of the way, sharing the research, and the hope for something that will work — are on to option number four.
“At this point, they’re really throwing things at the wall; they don’t know what’s going to work, so they’re trying all these things,” said Chris. “They haven’t been able to stop it — there’s no cure for what I have — but there are drugs that will slow it down, basically.
“And these things are toxic — they ship them to me in what amounts to a haz-mat bag,” he went on. “It says ‘keep this away from people — no one can touch it’ — but I have to take it.”
And while battling the cancer with chemo and other regimens, the Thibaults are looking at alternative treatments, like the hyperthermia Chris will receive in Vancouver, designed to generate changes in the cancer cells that can (that’s can) make the cells more likely to be affected by other treatments such as radiation therapy or chemotherapy.
“As I understand it, and I don’t really understand it, cancer cells don’t survive in hot — they don’t like to be heated up, and that’s what this treatment does,” he told HCN. “We did a lot of research on it, and it was recommended by our naturopathic doctor.”
Missy said she understands it better because she’s taken it upon herself to do much of the research and work to understand the many new forms of treatment that are becoming available and which ones hold the most promise.
“I had heard about and read about it,” she said of the hyperthermia treatments, which focus heat on a specific area — in this case, the target will be Chris’ lungs. “I’m immersing myself in that radical-remission, naturopathic world just to inform myself as much as possible.”
“I love creating. If I can’t create, I’ll just load the bullet now. But this is about more than that. It is a way to potentially raise the money needed to actually sustain my life through this journey and at the same time help others going through a similar thing. We will document the process in every way we can.”
That’s how Chris described the ongoing project to chronicle the fight, the journey that he and his family are now taking.
By ‘every way we can,’ he meant videos, blog posts, pictures, and podcasts. Eventually, all of this gathered material will be molded into a feature-length documentary, designed, as noted earlier, to educate and, hopefully, inspire.
There have been many successful and poignant efforts to chronicle a cancer fight in the past, but the Thibaults intend to use their unique and considerable skills in the art of storytelling to do something different — and compelling.
This was something Chris made a plan to do four years ago with his first brush with cancer, a project that took on the working title “Breast Cancer Boy,” an obvious reference to the fact that men rarely contract this form of cancer.
There were a few blog posts and an effort to relate what he was experiencing, he recalled, but this time the effort will be much more comprehensive and personal — because it needs to be.
And, as noted, it will involve a number of vehicles for getting the message across, from blog posts to podcasts, to what Chris called “TV-show-like material.”
“Nick’s going to come in with a camera and hang out with us,” he said, referring to Nick Laroche, an editor and production assistant with Chris Teebo Films. “He’s going to come to our house and hang out.
“It will be weird, because you really put it all out there when you do it like that,” he went on. “We don’t have a big budget — we don’t have any budget — so it’s not going to be like the Kardashians. But it will be a behind-the-scenes look at what goes into this.”
By ‘this,’ he meant everything involved with a cancer fight, from the research of various treatments to the wide range of emotions experienced by all those involved.
“People can see our confusion with medications, our frustration with doctors — they’re going to see all that,” he went on. “And I didn’t want to do this; I’m doing it because I feel it’s time and I need to. It’s not because I want to.”
Missy agreed and said, again, that this bit of storytelling aims to do what they ask their many clients to do.
“We steer away from scripted video content,” she explained, adding that the company has been doing a number of documentary-style productions for clients, including the American Women’s College at Bay Path University and MassMutual, and it will put that experience to good use as they tell their own story.
Things will be much different when the camera is pointed at them, but they both believe this something they need to do.
Indeed, when Missy noted that it will be difficult to find the time to do this, given work, medical treatments locally, and trips to places like Vancouver, Chris replied simply, “we’re going to have to make the time.”
A Message of Hope
“Lastly, I love you. I mean it. The good thing about going through this is that you look at people differently. I am convinced that the majority of humanity is good, regardless of what the news tells you.
OK, get on with your day. You’ll hear from us soon.”
That’s how Chris wrapped up his blog post. Each word, each phrase was chosen carefully, and each one has meaning.
‘You’ll hear from us soon’ makes it clear that the efforts to chronicle this story are only beginning. The words that come before explain why he and Missy are doing this.
In short, it’s a story that needs to be told. And there’s probably no one in the region who can tell any story — let alone this one — in a better, more powerful way.
As for ‘OK, get on with your day’ … well, none of us are likely to take that simple assignment for granted ever again.