Staying Alive

In 1997 I learned I had cancer—and that it had been trying to kill me for at least four years. The doctors can’t figure out why I’m not dead already.

THE CONTINENTAL CLUB in Austin was packed and the music was loud and it looked like people were having a good time. It was around midnight on Thursday, May 21, 1998. I was playing my black Fender P-Bass Deluxe and singing my heart out, and it felt good.

We were making a hell of a racket for just three guys, but people had always said that about us. The drummer, David Green, was pounding out a rock-steady groove, and Jon Dee Graham, my old pal from way back, was ripping monster chunks of sound out of a gold Fender Stratocaster. There I was, tall, pale, and paper-thin, dressed in black from head to toe, my hair falling in my eyes just so.

I must have looked like a shadowy character from one of the hard-boiled detective novels I wrote a few years ago. I’m sure some people thought I was a junkie, shuffling through the night from riff to riff, fix to fix. But the gorilla on my back wasn’t the big H. It was the big C. Cancer of the tonsil, to be exact.

At the time, I was not only battling the disease itself but trying to survive a triple whammy of surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. One of the most obvious complications was my drastic weight loss. I’m six foot three, and at my former weight of 175 pounds I had always passed for thin. Now, because eating was hell and vomiting was easy, I was down to 130 and losing more every day.

Among the zillions of side effects and complications of my ordeal, my scarred and irradiated vocal apparatus was missing about half an octave on the high end, and even my good notes were rough sounding. After all these years I finally had the kind of semi-gravelly voice that suited the way I felt deep down inside: a white guy who did indeed have a right to sing the blues.

There was some weirdness to my bass playing too. One of the chemotherapy’s side effects was neuropathy, a fancy medical term for nerve malfunction. Specifically, my fingers and hands were numb and tingly, which made playing bass tricky. Also, in my left leg, I’d lost the function of the femoral nerve, which controls a muscle that comes in handy for walking, dancing, and various sudden moves. But I’d always been one of those too-cool-to-dance guys, anyway. Somehow, I got through the night without playing more than a couple of bad notes and never once falling down.

The room was crowded with local musicians and true-blue aficionados of the music scene. The gig was a benefit in the guise of a Rolling Stones tribute. The beneficiary was the SIMS Foundation, which provides counseling and other services for troubled musicians—a worthy cause indeed.

A dozen other bands were on the bill, and every one of them rose to the occasion to put on a good show. In our case, the audience was getting a little something extra: a mini-reunion of what had been, back in the late seventies and early eighties, one of Austin’s most popular rock and roll bands, the Skunks. It was remarkably cool that after all that time, Jon Dee and I still played exceedingly well together.

Normally, rocking down memory lane isn’t my thing, but in the previous six months, my whole world had turned upside down, and playing this gig was like looking in the mirror and checking my pulse to make sure I was still alive, still me, after all I’d been through.

It all started on Wednesday, November 19, 1997, with a phone call from Dr. Melba Lewis. Dr. Lewis’ full title is “otolaryngologist—head and neck surgeon,” and I’d been seeing her because of a recurrent lump in my neck, just under my right jaw. That afternoon, Dr. Lewis called to tell me that the lab results from the biopsy she had performed the previous day confirmed that I had cancer. This is life-threatening, she said. She spoke slowly and in measured tones, giving the reality time to seep in. I had a type of head and neck cancer known as squamous cell carcinoma, or SCC. It’s a nasty enough type of cancer under the best of circumstances, but I had a tumor more than two centimeters in diameter (that lump under my right jaw) and several smaller ones around it. The cancer was also present in one tonsil, the lymph glands, and various other places in my neck.

SCC is the kind of cancer that most commonly develops in the oral cavity of older men who are very heavy drinkers and chain smokers. For the previous ten years, I had smoked two cigars a day and had an average of two scotches a night. It wasn’t exactly a risk-free lifestyle, but according to Dr. Lewis I didn’t fit the profile for this disease, either. Probably the most alarming thing about my cancer was the fact that I had had it for at least four years.

In January 1994, just before moving back to Austin from L.A., I’d had a tumor removed from the exact same place in my neck. After the operation, my doctor had told me not to worry: The pathologists said it was benign. Not cancer.

After Dr. Lewis made her initial diagnosis, she arranged for the L.A. lab to send samples of that original tumor (which had been frozen and kept on file) to be tested in Austin. Oops! The Austin pathologists found squamous cell carcinoma in the samples. The results were double- and triple-checked. SCC had been trying to kill me for at least four years.

The cancer docs rate the severity of the disease in stages ranging from one to four, with stage four being the most serious. Mine was stage four. I did some research on the Internet and found a site called Oral Pathology, which offered all sorts of grim data about SCC. “Squamous cell carcinoma,” the text noted, “is a common oral epithelial malignancy that all too frequently leads to mutilative surgery

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