A Picture of Hope: Abigail Henderson fights cancer – and rallies musicians for health care

Abigail Henderson feels best when she’s onstage.

The drummer pounds away behind her, the bass player rides the roots and the fifths in a country-rock lope.

Her man stands stage-right, tall and blue-eyed, twisting licks on his guitar like he’s squeezing limes over a drink.

The tuning pedal and the set list are at her feet. The guitar neck is in her left hand, the pick in her right.

She starts to sing. She feels nothing.

Weekends are hardest for this 31-year-old, so having a gig works out well. She usually gets the chemo treatment on Thursdays, and the god-awful poison hangover kicks in Saturday evening. It’s the perfect time to play with her band, the Gaslights, and to forget about the cancer in her body.

Cancer smashed up her life in midsummer.

It came in the house on July 22 at 11:45 a.m., she wrote on the blog she started five days after being diagnosed with stage III inflammatory breast cancer. It crashed through the door and freaked out the cats, set the dog barking, and pissed off my husband. It promptly thrashed the living room, broke all the glass, blew out the light bulbs. It changed every word in every book on every bookcase. It made the TV speak a new language. It shredded every bit of clothing I own. It emptied the contents of the refrigerator, kicked the butter and the milk and the salad mix to all corners of the kitchen. And then it sat down squarely on the couch and said I had to live with it now.

Henderson called her blog “Hope Is My Middle Name.”

One of the more outspoken people on the music scene, Henderson is a former creative-writing major who, in her own words, “minored in feminazi.” She worked in the Women’s Center at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, protesting Promise Keepers and bringing in leftist scholars such as Angela Davis.

She also attended Naropa University, the Buddhism-informed Colorado school that’s famous for its Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. She lasted only a year, though. “I realized I am a little bit too Western of mind to give myself freely to the Zen concept,” she says. “I drank a lot, I swore a lot, I argued a lot.”

Her blog is meditative, feisty and poignant — not like the breast-cancer literature one might find at the local Barnes & Noble, which Henderson describes as “chick lit.”

In addition to providing a good read, her blog serves as a way for Henderson’s friends and family to keep up with her.

Stage III inflammatory breast cancer is rare and aggressive. It spreads quickly to other parts of the body. It is not heralded by the telltale lump but rather by swelling, warmth, redness, with the skin sometimes looking like an orange peel. IBC accounts for only 1 percent to 5 percent of breast-cancer cases, and the survival rate is significantly lower than with regular breast cancer.

It fucks shit up.

But as far as Henderson and her friends are concerned, it is not going to stop the rock.

It’s a rainy night in September, and The Gaslights are presiding over a packed house at the Crossroads Music Fest. Of the dozens of people crammed into the Brick, several — most of them women — have come with their heads shaved in support of Henderson.

Wearing an all-black get-up adorned with an Obama pin and armed with a sunburst Les Paul guitar, Henderson leads the Gaslights through a rowdy set of rock-flavored country songs about politics, love and the bottle. Some of the tunes are brand-new and unrecorded, some are off the four-year-old band’s fourth and latest album, 16 Addresses.


Henderson’s scrappy, drawling alto is as strong as ever. To her side, her husband, Chris Meck, bends the strings of his Fender and sings backup.

The Gaslights’ rhythm section is on fire. Seasoned local soldiers Erik Voeks on bass and Ryan Johnson on drums joined in the spring, filling holes left by longtime drummer Glen Hockemeier and temporary bassist Bill Sundahl, both of whom left after the Gaslights’ second European tour, in December 2007.

When the show is over, Henderson stands outside on the sidewalk amid a swarm of friends and a pile of instruments. She asks Meck if he minds bringing the van over himself. “Pleeeease? I have cancer,” she coos.

Now, five weeks later, Henderson and Meck are finishing lunch in a booth at McCoy’s. It’s a sunny mid-October afternoon. Two packs of Orbit gum sit on the table in front of them. In July, both of these heavy smokers quit pretty much cold turkey.

Around the same time, the couple lost what might have been the two best heads of hair in Missouri. Looking like a character from the sleeve of an old Little Feat record, Meck had sported modestly long brown hair that went perfectly with his blue eyes, shrugging good looks and denim-and-boots wardrobe. Henderson’s straight blond locks spilled all around her guitar when she played.

Meck’s hair is now a 1-inch crew cut. He was the first of several of Henderson’s friends to shave his head in solidarity after the diagnosis. Henderson wears the short-billed cap that has become her most popular accessory of late. She pulls it off — “I look like a baby egret!” she says — and reveals a wispy halo of white-blond hair.

It’s a good sign.

Earlier on this day, she posted the following:

July seems like a hundred years ago. I halfway expected to be some sad shell of myself at this point, having to be carried in and out of cars wrapped in an old checkered blanket, sipping Ensure out of a straw, having adopted some post-Dickensian mode of speech. (“Thanks Gov’nr. R’membr you ‘n ‘Eaven, they will.”) No. All has changed and every thing’s the same….

I have a super militant haircut, but I was super-militant anyway.

Later in the evening, as usual, Henderson and Meck will report to work: Meck to Davey’s Uptown where he tends bar, Henderson to Fred P. Ott’s on the Plaza, where she continues to wait tables even though she has undergone four of her eight scheduled chemo treatments. In January, she will undergo a mastectomy, followed by radiation therapy.

Working through adversity is a fact of life for serious musicians.

“People just can’t get sick when they play music,” Henderson says. “Here’s how it works: If you’re a midlevel band, you don’t make that much money. There are four, five, six people in your band, so whatever money you make on the road or from record sales — if you’re actually putting back into the band like a small business would — at least 20 percent is going back into the business, and the rest of it’s paid out, and nobody can live on that. So everybody’s got another job.”

These jobs, Henderson says, are mostly in the food-service industry, waiting tables wherever the schedule is flexible and the tips are decent. The hours — usually fewer than 30 a week — don’t come with health insurance. So Henderson bought her own insurance just months before she found out about her disease.


Even before the diagnosis, it hadn’t been a good year.

The Gaslights’ second trip to Europe last December didn’t go well. Toward the end, personalities conflicted, signaling an impending breakup. Henderson got a bad cold, and a piercing howl of feedback from a monitor on the tour’s last gig ruptured her eardrum. After a torturous trans-Atlantic flight, Meck and Henderson got stranded at the Kansas City airport, waiting for a taxicab on Christmas Eve.

“We got back from Europe. It was awful. The band was falling apart, it was cold, I had a terrible show the last show we had, and I was really sick,” she says.

“So Christmas happens. It was awful, and then about two weeks later, Chris’ guitar got stolen — Chris’ ’72 fucking Telecaster! — and the day after that, my father died. This all happened in about two and a half weeks.”

It was lung cancer that got her father. Her mother, a former actress, was diagnosed with colorectal cancer 15 years ago. A dues-paying union member for 20 years, Henderson’s mother got health coverage through both the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists and the Screen Actors Guild. She’s been fighting to maintain good health ever since her diagnosis.

Henderson, still unable to kick her cold and reeling from her father’s death, decided to get her own basic insurance. She applied for and got a PPO plan from Humana for $100 a month and with a $5,200 deductible.

“It’s basically an if-you-get-hit-by-a-bus policy,” she says. “It was a little bit more expensive because I was a smoker, but it was something I could afford. Everything else was just way out of my league.”

Paying for her own insurance puts Henderson in a tiny minority of the artistic population.

In this country’s pray-you-don’t-get-sick health-care system, where more than 47 million Americans have no health insurance, uninsured musicians are in every tavern. They don’t go to the doctor unless it’s an emergency, in which case they go to the emergency room and hope it’s not something expensive.

“My first experience with my brand-new health insurance was a cancer diagnosis. It was so messed up,” Henderson says, her last words broken up by a laugh. “But that’s what happens, man. I hadn’t gone to see a doctor in 15 years. Nobody has — nobody I know has. It’s one of those things that’s too expensive. It’s a luxury.

“You don’t think about it,” she goes on, “because very rarely do people who are 30 have a confluence of events where everything comes together and [death] puts its teeth in your face…. That sort of come-to-Jesus meeting is saved for when you’re 45 and having a midlife crisis.”

A rash appeared on Henderson’s left breast in April, but she didn’t see a doctor until June.

“It just looked like a detergent rash,” Henderson remembers. “I didn’t think anything of it.”

This year’s not the first time that Meck and Henderson have been without, or nearly without, health care in a time of need.

While touring in 2006, Meck injured his back while hefting the band’s equipment. A chiropractor treated him and told him to lay off the heavy lifting. Along with the other two band members, Henderson pushed to make up for the lost manpower as the band ventured south.

“By the time we got to New Orleans, we’d done a show, and we got back to the hotel, and I had this terrible pain in my stomach,” Henderson recalls. “I couldn’t breathe and I couldn’t sit down…. It had been coming on in the bar, and this woman was like, ‘There’s a musicians’ clinic. You can call them tomorrow, and they’ll see you. All you need is a record.’ And I was like, ‘That’s bullshit! There’s no such thing as a musicians’ clinic.'”


Henderson was wrong. With help from Louisiana State University’s Healthcare Network and the Daughters of Charity, the New Orleans Musicians’ Clinic has been treating area musicians since 1998. For $20 and a Gaslights CD (their latest at the time, Midwest Hotel), Henderson got a doctor’s diagnosis: hernia. She was told to wrap an Ace bandage around her middle until she could get home and get surgery.

After three months of corseting up her gut, Henderson finally underwent surgery at Truman Medical Center in Kansas City. Unable to pay, she swallowed her pride and declared herself indigent.

“It’s really kind of hard to go in there and be like, ‘This is how much money I make,'” Henderson says. “We were on the road all the time and weren’t making any money.”

The landscape is littered with failed organizations that have tried to help uninsured musicians.

A Web site for a Southern Louisiana organization that promises to help local music makers get affordable care lists a telephone number — a rueful voice-mail greeting says the organization is no longer functional. “Rest assured, we are still working diligently to keep the music alive,” the greeting says before directing callers to the New Orleans Musicians’ Clinic.

Or take Sweet Relief, an organization established by singer-songwriter Victoria Williams in 1994 after her diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. “Sweet Relief has helped preserve our most profound art by becoming music’s most compassionate and generous charity,” reads the group’s Web site. The site lists pretty much every major pop recording artist of the past 30 or so years among its “supporters.” Beyond that list, it provides nothing except a generic e-mail contact. The Pitch sent a note, but no one wrote back.

Carolyn Schwarz, executive director of the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians, says her group and the New Orleans Musicians’ Clinic are the only two city-based nonprofits in the country that render health-care services exclusively to musicians. Schwarz says she frequently gets calls from people in other cities who want to know how to run an organization like the one she oversees.

In 2001, the city of Austin commissioned a study that concluded the town’s music industry generates $616 million in economic activity. Music created $11 million in tax revenue and 11,200 jobs. Citing those numbers, the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians was able to convince local hospitals in 2005 to donate services to the city’s musicians. In particular, three service providers — the nonprofit hospital systems of Seton and St. David’s plus the SIMS Foundation — signed on to provide medical, dental and mental health care, respectively.

“You talk to musicians, and they know they need to take good care of themselves,” Schwarz says. “They’ll say, ‘I know I can’t get sick because one, I can’t get sick days in my profession, and two, I’m on the road all the time, and it’s hard to eat healthy.’ I think a lot of them have done a lot of their own prevention just out of fear because they knew that before something like HAAM existed, they had nowhere to go if they did get sick and couldn’t afford it.”

In three years of operation, HAAM has served about 1,200 musicians in need of care. It has the capacity to help 1,000 musicians annually.

In Kansas City, no one has done a study to determine how much the local music industry contributes to the economy. We can’t measure tourism dollars generated by a South By Southwest or Austin City Limits festival. Nor do we have anything on the scale of New Orleans’ yearly Jazz & Heritage Festival.


But information on the wider arts scene shows that local creativity does generate revenue.

In 2005, the national Americans for the Arts organization, in partnership with the Arts Council of Metropolitan Kansas City, conducted a study and found that area arts and cultural organizations pump more than $279 million into the area’s economy each year. The survey didn’t include entertainment events such as David Bowie at Starlight Theatre or a rock show in Westport, but it did shed light on the local culture, where art and music often coexist.

“Popular musical culture is an important part of any major urban scene,” says Paul Tyler, the Arts Council’s grants director.

Based on the most recent census data available, from 2000, Tyler says area artists earned $160 million in total individual revenue and $400 million in household revenue.The amount made by “musicians and composers,” as the U.S. Census Bureau designates them, is just a part of that.But by looking at artists’ revenues, Tyler points out, “You get an idea of the impact of artists’ economic contributions.”

Kansas City likes to boast of its musical heritage.

But it does little to help the living souls who keep the town rocking.

In 2001, columnist Steve Penn of The Kansas City Star founded the Coda Fund, to raise money for funeral and burial expenses of career jazz musicians. Penn tells The Pitch that he plans to start doing more to help living jazz musicians; Coda’s October 11 Health and Financial Fitness Fair, which offered free medical screenings and financial consultations, is one example.

But what if KC were known, right alongside the Crescent City and the Live Music Capital of the World, as a place that really takes care of its hometown musicians?

Heather Cave, artist and musician — cervical cancer.

Kirk Rundstrom, musician — esophageal cancer. (Died in 2007.)

Billy Brimblecom, drummer — cancer: Ewing’s sarcoma. Left leg amputated below the knee.

Glen Hockemeier, former Gaslights drummer — carpal tunnel syndrome.

Johnny Hammil, bassist. Injured in a fall from a ladder.

Abigail Henderson.

They’re just a handful of local musicians with varying degrees of health insurance — from minimal to none — who have appeared in The Pitch‘s pages since the last presidential election.

George Bush and John Kerry talked about fixing the nation’s health-care crisis back then, too. Nothing changed. And the number that politicians quote in speeches has gone from 45 million uninsured to 47 million.

Meck and Henderson live together in a small, quaint rental house in Waldo. Covered in dark, wood-shingle siding, the place is a virtual cottage among old trees and bigger homes. It’s a rainy afternoon less than three weeks until the election, and MSNBC — “feel-good news for liberals,” Henderson calls it — is on the TV.

The Pitch goes to press on Tuesday afternoons — in the case of this particular issue, in the middle of Election Day. As we send the paper to the printer, we have no idea who will win.

The two presidential candidates’ health plans are radically different. While Barack Obama wants to use various methods to insure everyone, John McCain’s tax-break-based plan would benefit mainly the young, the healthy and the already insured. Under McCain’s plan, it might be hard for people like Henderson, Heather Cave, Billy Brimblecom and anyone else with “pre-existing conditions” to get affordable insurance.


Henderson and Meck aren’t waiting around for politicians, though.

Along with several other area musicians and activists, they have begun the preliminary work of starting up their own nonprofit organization to promote health care for area musicians. They’re planning on calling it the Midwest Music Foundation, but they don’t want to talk about it too much — not until they’ve secured 501(c)(3) status.

Meanwhile, Henderson will keep playing.

And because benefit fundraisers for poor, sick artists show not only the failure of the American health-care system but also the resilience of the creative class, Henderson’s friends have put together what may be the city’s biggest such effort so far. And it’s becoming more than just a one-time deal.

Apocalypse Meow, a grassroots breast-cancer activist group, was founded months ago by Henderson allies including Tony Ladesich of Pendergast and his girlfriend, Rhonda Lyne, along with Angela Lupton and Mac McSpadden, a couple who, after Meck, were the first (but not the last) to shave their heads following Henderson’s cancer diagnosis.

As of this writing, the group’s Web site, ApocalypseMeow.net, has collected nearly $1,800 in donations. Even more will come in during the two-day Apocalypse Meow event on November 8 and 9, when bands load in to Davey’s Uptown and the Record Bar, respectively, for a live-music showcase featuring 18 bands, including the Pedaljets, Expassionates, Howard Iceberg and Chad Rex, Bacon Shoe, Lights and Siren, and many others.

Goods and services — signed posters, massages, personal chefs, a travel package, artwork from Kansas City Art Institute students, to name a few — will be auctioned. And they’ll raffle off a custom amp made by Paul Marchman of Scarlett Amplifiers, called “the Abby” in honor of Henderson.

Peripheral events have been added to the two-day lineup, including a Friday pre-party on November 7 at Midwestern Music and an afterparty at Fred P. Ott’s November 9. Expect more partying and money-raising announcements by the time this paper is out.

“It’s awkward and strange and weird,” Henderson says of having a benefit thrown for her, “because I have been doing this my whole life. I’ve been organizing benefits for puppies or women or MoveOn[.org] or other musicians.”

“You know what was really overwhelming for me,” Meck says, “was that we had to add a day because so many people wanted to play it. And even adding a day, there were still people who wanted to play it.”

“Next year, by God, I am going to chair Apocalypse Meow, and we are going to fucking raise money for everybody else,” Henderson says.

After all, Hope is her middle name.

E-mail jason.harper@pitch.com or call 816-218-6774.

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