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How Dave Mustaine took on cancer and won

(Image credit: Jeremy Saffer)

The whole world is coming apart at the seams.

At least that’s the way it seems in Nashville, Tennessee this week. A T6 tornado tore the hell out of town just as the coronavirus hit the Volunteer State. Even President Trump is in Music City today, surveying the damage from Marine Helicopter One, hovering above us as we step into a dark, downtown studio to meet with local resident, Dave Mustaine.

The Apocalypse’s first and second horsemen take a back seat, at least for the moment. Right now, we’re more concerned about Dave’s dog. Oblivious to its diminutive size, the long-haired Chihuahua descends upon us like some high-pitched Hound of Hell, menacingly baring his teeth and threatening to devour our very soul if we step any closer to his master. 

“Easy, Romeo. Easy,” Dave says, reaching to save us from the snarling beast. We coil back, cautiously offering the back of our hand. Dave laughs gruffly. “Oh, no,” he says. “That doesn’t work with him.”

As the Megadeth frontman corrals his pup, it gives us a chance to check out the legend after his recent health crisis. Mass of fiery mane – intact. Black jacket, jeans, black t-shirt, white sneakers. Honestly? Well, he looks like Dave Mustaine, like the hellraiser still not sold on cheap or easy peace. He moves a bit slow, but not creakily – more like a man who’s fought the Devil bare-fisted and lived to tell the tale. 

With the hound at bay, he turns to greet us. It’s difficult to know what’s appropriate in this season of paranoia and mutant pandemic, especially for a man who’s just had his immune system nuked. Do we fist bump? Nod and touch elbows? “Nah, I ain’t worried, man,” Dave assures us, shaking hands with a vice grip. “I’m healthy now.” 

The backstory: March 2019. After being bounced from doctor to doctor, Dave gets an official diagnosis that sounds like some dystopian speed metal verse. Squamous cell carcinoma on the base of your tongue

Hold up. Cancer? Mustaine? No way

If anyone seemed indestructible, it was Dave Mustaine. Bad ass, bad attitude, snarling, spitting, raging, red-headed, black belt-carrying soldier in God’s Army, Godfather Of Thrash. That cancer could sink its claws into someone like Dave sent shockwaves through the metal community. Now, one year after the diagnosis, Metal Hammer comes to Music City to hear his testimony first-hand. Because Dave Mustaine kicked cancer’s ass. 

“Yeah, I’m pretty stoked about that,” he says, grinning as he grabs a bottle of water and motions for us to have a seat in a private, black- walled dressing room. The obvious first question: So, how do you feel? “I’m a little run down, but a lot of that’s from the medication and all the stuff that goes along with treatment. They hit the cancer really hard, nine doses of chemo and 51 radiation treatments, which just beats the hell out of you. My mouth is still messed up but overall, I feel really good.”

Dave settles in on the couch to tell us how he got the news that he was cancer-free. “I was here in Nashville, at my doctor’s office. He had to reach down the back of my throat, which was really unpleasant, but it was important for him to feel and make sure. And he said my progress was amazing, that both sides felt the same. I’ve got a metal plate in my neck that I figured might cause problems, but the doc told me, “Dave, you are in perfect health, 100%. You’re free to go.” 

Dave pauses to slide a piece of Big Red gum into his mouth, twisting the foil between his fingers, reflecting before he continues. “It sounds bizarre, but I kind of knew. I took good care of myself. I’d done everything my doctors told me to do. I had tons of support from family and friends. And I had lots of prayer. I don’t want to sound arrogant, but I expected it. I had faith that I was going to be healed.”  



(Image credit: Jeremy Saffer)

At this point, Dave rewinds to early 2019, explaining how he received the grim verdict. While out shredding with Joe Satriani and Zakk Wylde on the Experience Hendrix tour, severe mouth pain struck. “I’d gone in to get some dental work,” he says. “And after, it felt like the dentist had broken a piece of scraper off in my gums. I went back and he sent me to an oral surgeon who checked me out and said, ‘You need to see an ear, nose and throat doctor. I don’t want to say anything bad, but it looks like the Big C.’ Well, fuck, dude! Why’d you say that, then?” 

Dave shakes his head, still pissed, taking a long pull of water. “Anyway, I figured I’d take care of myself once the Hendrix tour was over. While out on the road, a friend of mine knew an ENT at the local emergency room. He came over, took a look, and said it wasn’t anything to worry about. But I knew something was wrong with me. It was just too far down for anybody to see.

“We had a day off and I was home in Nashville, so I saw a local specialist who suggested a scope. I don’t do good with scopes, so they had to knock me out to get the tube in. But yeah, they confirmed that it was cancer in the side of my throat that had spread to two lymph nodes.

“Initially, they wanted to send me to MD Anderson in Houston for 11 weeks and I said no. fucking. way. I’m not gonna be away from my family for that long. So, they set me up at Vanderbilt, with Dr. Cmelak, who’s actually one of the best radiation oncologists in the country. I had a good team.”

Fortunately for Mustaine, Music City is also the healthcare capital of the United States. The band cancelled tour dates and put the brakes on a new record so Dave could begin a brutal treatment regime, resting at his farm in the rolling hills of nearby Franklin between blasts of radiation and IV chemo drips. The worst, he says, is over.

“I’ll have to do another MRI soon and check in with the doctor regularly, three years, five years. But the cool thing is, my voice came back even better than before. I think the treatment shrunk whatever was on my vocal cord that was making it hard to sing. I’d seen pictures of my voice box and there was some kind of bubble on the flap that was giving me trouble. Cyst, tumour, nodule, whatever the fuck it was. But that’s gone now, and they say long as I don’t do anything stupid, I should be good for the rest of my career. I know once you get cancer you’re never really out of the woods, but if the process doesn’t scare you into changing your lifestyle, then shame on you.”

Dave is no stranger to injuries and pain. He suffered career-threatening nerve damage to his left arm during a 2002 stint in a Texas rehab, and a decade later, underwent emergency surgery for spinal stenosis – whiplash, if you will – resulting in titanium implants in his neck. Flashing his trademark maniacal smile, Dave insists he felt no fear in the face of death.

“I already died once,” he says, referencing his 1993 overdose on Valium. “I don’t remember anything, though. No light or tunnel or any of that shit. I respect death but I’m not living my life in fear. There was a little when I first found out that I had cancer, but it wasn’t so much about dying, as not being able to use my gift anymore, to play guitar or sing. That really shook me. To be inconvenienced is one thing. It’s something else to lose your gift.”

Dave leans in. His steely glare, coupled with the white beard and wild hair, gives him the appearance of some Old Testament prophet of doom. “When they told me that my arm was 80% and I would never play guitar again, I thought, ‘You have no idea who you’re talking to. I will absolutely play again, and it’ll be a matter of days, not weeks.’ There’s a couple things I still can’t do, but I feel like I can play almost as good as I used to. Going through that thing with my arm was helpful. It gave me the courage to face any kind of medical problem I might have down the road. I’m going to do everything they say and if there’s blood, I can handle it. I’ve seen my own blood before.” 

We ask about the darkest days, if his reputation causes people to expect an unrealistic level of strength. Dave fidgets with his shoelace. Ruffles the pup sweetly. Reaches for another piece of gum before the reply.

“I think people do expect me to be invincible. It is a lot of pressure,” he admits. “But when you come out on the other side victorious, they cheer even louder. I like being a man of the people. That might sound corny, but it’s true. The hardest part was having to let others take care of me. I’ve always been so independent that even if I do need help, I’m not going to let anyone know. But overall, chemo wasn’t as ugly for me as it is for a lot of people. I had a couple of days where I got really sick and threw up, but that was it. I tried to be upbeat. When I would go in for treatment, I’d talk with the other patients, try to be encouraging.”

The thrash titan was forced to miss the band’s inaugural MegaCruise in October, with his daughter, Electra, stepping in to represent the family. Upon completion of treatment, Dave was able to return for the Killing Road tour with Five Finger Death Punch in January. While on stage at the SSE Arena in Wembley, he announced that the cancer was in complete remission. 

“Actually, I think I mentioned it from the first show of the tour,” says Dave. “If not Helsinki, then Stockholm for sure. I wanted the fans to know that I’m OK and how great the crew has been. And for sure, I want to tell the truth and let everyone know how much I prayed through this whole ordeal. Not just like, ‘Oh, yeah, thanks, God.’ But that I really, seriously prayed.”

(Image credit: Jeremy Saffer)

Christian for nearly two decades, Dave has always been vocal about his beliefs. While discussing the role faith played in his recovery, he pauses, raking fingers through his beard, measuring his words.

“After growing up as a Jehovah’s Witness, there was a time that I hated the concept of anything that I had to answer to. The church disfellowshipped my sister, Debbie, and I was the only one who would sit and listen to her cry. It flipped me out and all I wanted to do was get back at the people who hurt my sister,” Dave explains. “But now, I try to keep my prayers pretty gentle. I don’t pray for anyone to get hurt or get what’s coming to them, only for God’s will and that he would help me do what I need to do. To me, prayer is just an open, honest, easy conversation like you’re talking to your dad. Essentially, that’s what God is supposed to be, our Father, right? So that makes it easy for me to engage in prayer.”

Asked to elaborate, Dave adds, “In the Bible, the Pharisees liked to pray in public so everybody could see them. They thought the louder they prayed, the more pious they would seem, like it’s an indication of their righteousness. For me, righteousness is something that’s exhibited through consistent behaviour that’s Godly in nature. You sum up the gospels with the Golden Rule. Helping others, no matter what. There’s this old song by the Circle Jerks called Wonderful.” 

He sings the chorus of the 80s punk classic. Romeo perks up, cocking an ear in his master’s direction. “It’s a great song that talks about how it’s really not so hard to do something nice for someone else. Help a stranger. Smile. If you see a homeless person, give them something to eat. I was homeless once. It was the worst, man. Scrounging for food, living in [bassist] David Ellefson’s van…”  

Dave apologises for losing his train of thought, blaming the lingering effects of “chemo brain”. After a break, he switches gears, discussing the positive changes that have come from his battle with the disease. “My wife and I are getting along tremendously, and things are really good with my son and daughter right now, too. I’ve got a better relationship with my band. The other day, Kiko [Loureiro, guitarist] says to me, ‘I really like this new Dave!’ What he was talking about, is when you’re dealing with pain, you drink, you smoke, you bitch, because you don’t know what’s going on. But soon as I found out what was wrong with me, I attacked it. Once I did, I could feel myself getting happier too.

 

(Image credit: Press)

Support also came from outside Dave’s immediate circle. His old band brother, James Hetfield, reached out, as did Kiss’s Paul Stanley and Ozzy, who was at war with his own medical demons in 2019.

“Everybody’s treatment is different, but Bruce Dickinson had been through throat cancer about five years ago, so he was able to give me a lot of insight into what to expect. His biggest advice was to listen to the doctors and don’t rush to get back onstage. They told him to hold off, but he went back out to perform and nothing came out. Well, OK. I get it. Bruce waited a month before his first show, so I held off a little longer. My last treatment was in September and I made plenty of time to rest, exercise and eat right before we went back out on tour. We did 22 dates overseas, and I feel great now, except for the fatigue. But I think a lot of that might be due to um, extracurricular activities. Staying up late. Not sleeping. Maybe a little, you know…” 

Thumb and forefinger to his lips, Dave inhales sharply, making the universal symbol for partaking of the herb. Could he be referring to the alleged medicinal benefits of CBD oil? “Don’t screw around with the oil, man,” he growls in the same gravel baritone as his crushing thrash classics. Our eyes go wide as the voice from sixth grade Headbangers Ball comes to life.

Dave cackles at our reaction, pushing back a wayward strand of hair. “If you’re gonna do it, get the good stuff. I think the world is just now finding out the beauty of cannabis and everything it can do for you. I hear people talk how it’s good for cancer patients. C’mon, it’s good for any fucking patient! The radiation zapped my salivary glands so I couldn’t make spit, which made it really hard to swallow and get food down. They gave me this crazy mouthwash to use that had Benadryl and lidocaine in it, but I still couldn’t eat. So cannabis helped with that, except I got a terrible craving for kiddie cereal. I went to the store and got, like, 20 boxes.” 

The thought of the Tornado Of Souls singer devouring countless bowls of cereal is a pretty cool picture and we can’t help but inquire about his favourite fix. “Trix with marshmallows. Froot Loops with marshmallows. Frosted Flakes. The kind with little marshmallows. You get the idea. My cancer team told me to try and watch the sugar intake, but they said, ‘Dave, if you can eat – then eat.’ The doctor threatened to put a feeding tube in my gut if I lost too much weight. Well, they scared the shit out of me with that one, but it worked.”

With Dave healthy and back onstage, the follow-up to 2016’s Grammy Award-winning Dystopia is on every Megafan’s brain. Late last year, Dave teased songs that were “heavy as hell” with titles such as Rattlehead, Part Two and The Dogs Of Chernobyl

“I don’t know if any of those titles are still holding up,” he says, revealing that the band has been tracking at Nashville’s Sound Kitchen with co-producer Chris Rakestraw at the controls again. “Whenever I make a record, the names of the songs change so many times. I think we’ve got 14 songs for this album and another folder with six. The songs are constantly evolving and as they do, we change the title to be more reflective of what makes the song distinct.”

So, will we see a new Megadeth album before 2020 ends? “I hope so, yeah,” says Dave. “We’ll start back in a couple of days and keep plowing until it’s done. Metal Tour Of The Year starts this summer, but that should be fun and easy [Editor's note - we spoke to Dave before COVID-19 outbreak]. We’ve got a week’s vacation coming up soon and I’m going to go rest up and get ready to come back and make a brilliant record.”

Nashville traffic is anarchy these days and Romeo looks like he needs to hike his leg. As the sun sets over the Cumberland River, Dave stands and slides an arm around our shoulder, recruiting Metal Hammer to thank the fans for all their thoughts and prayers. It strikes us, how we expect legends to be carved from granite. On one hand, we understand that our heroes are human. But on the other, we never want to see them frail, or sick, or down. And that must be a hell of a burden sometimes. But perhaps, it’s also what keeps them moving. If our heroes can keep pushing, then that gives us the courage to keep pushing too, through all the shitstorms of life, disasters both natural and manufactured, even the ones we bring upon ourselves. Decades later, they still inspire perseverance, hope, and the determination to never let the bastards grind you down. Maybe even a little 21st century metal up your ass. 

Still, we have to ask one last thing. Dave’s been on the road almost 40 years. Dues paid; the mark has been made. Was he ever tempted to call it a day, sit back on the farm and enjoy a slow, simple life? 

“Yeah, I guess I could do that,” he admits, shrugging like it’s no big deal. “But I love what I do, and I like helping the band and crew make money. Playing music makes people happy. A lot of times while we’re out there, they share stuff with us, some good, some bad, but we get to bring our own little brand of panacea to people and somehow, that makes them feel beautiful. Even if it’s for just one night.” 

Published in Metal Hammer #334