Chuck Schuldiner: Lust for Life
He called his band Death, but Chuck Schuldiner loved life, family and of course, metal.
Christy recalls the subsequent tour as a happy time. “In Italy, our bus pulled up to this club in Milan, and there were hundreds of kids waiting there. We got out and headed to a restaurant, and these kids started following us down the street, like it was a parade, and chanting Chuck’s name. We get to the restaurant and start eating, and all those kids had their faces pressed against the windows, watching us eat. It was like a zombie movie! Chuck got such a kick out of that. He was so humbled, too.”
With the Sound of Perseverance tour completed, Chuck and his new group went to work on Control Denied’s debut in early 1999. The sessions were well underway that May when Chuck began to experience pain in his upper neck, which he believed was caused by a pinched nerve, possibly from strain. An MRI exam proved he was right about the pinched nerve; unfortunately, it was caused by a tumor growing at the base of his brain. On May 13, his 32nd birthday, Chuck was diagnosed with pontine glioma, a rare type of brain stem cancer that typically affects children. Says Jane, “Chuck’s doctors determined that he had that tumor from childhood, with no symptoms at all to alert us through the years.”
The tumor’s sensitive location made it inoperable, and Chuck underwent radiation therapy to control its growth. Alternative treatments were sought as well. Because he had no medical insurance—a common situation for many musicians, even those signed to label contracts—Chuck’s treatment was paid entirely out of pocket. In all, his family spent some $90,000 for his therapies. During that time, Beth put her real estate deals on hold to take care of Chuck and raise funds for his treatment. “I told Chuck as a joke, ‘You are a full-time job,’ ” Beth told MTV. “Every single dime has been for him, but Chuck would do it for me 1,000 times over.”
November brought the release of Control Denied’s debut, The Fragile Art of Existence. By then, fans knew of Chuck’s condition and many assumed the band’s name and the album’s title were a reference to his illness, though both had been chosen before his illness was known.
In the first days of 2000, Chuck and his family learned of an experimental surgical procedure that could treat his condition. Within just one week, they managed to assemble a team of five medical specialists to perform the surgery, and to do so quickly: the head surgeon declared that Chuck’s life was “in imminent danger” and scheduled his surgery for January 19. Although the procedure was expensive, the doctors had agreed to waive their fees. Unfortunately, the hospital hosting the operation, New York University Medical Center, would not waive its fee, estimated at $70,000 to $100,000. Although the hospital was willing to accept as little as $5,000 as a down payment, Beth was also asked to sign over Chuck’s future royalties to pay the balance. She refused.
Still, the surgery went ahead as planned. Nearly half the tumor was removed, and Chuck’s life had been saved. Soon after, he began physical therapy to help him recover from the effects of the tumor and surgery. Within two months, he was telling MTV News, “Everything looks good. I’m moving pretty quick through physical therapy, and we’re seeing good results.” Chuck said he was especially buoyed by the financial donations from his fans and from fellow musicians who put together benefit shows. “When this sort of stuff happens, it really brings people together. It’s incredible how people aggressively organized for this. It’s very uplifting.”
Chuck had good reasons to be optimistic. Though the tumor had not been entirely removed, it had reportedly necrotized; the tissue was effectively dead. In addition, if the tumor had been with Chuck since childhood, as his doctors said, then it was most likely a low-grade glioma, which is slower to grow and less aggressive than a high-grade variety. In any case, Chuck’s prognosis for a full recovery looked good.
Work went ahead on a new Control Denied album, tentatively titled When Man and Machine Collide. But when Chuck’s symptoms recurred in early 2001, his worst fears were realized. The tumor had begun to grow once again, invading areas of the brain too sensitive for surgery. Having been once abated, the cancer now returned with a devastating vengeance. “Chuck lived on his own until early in 2001,” says Jane, “when I went to his house to stay with him during the day and eventually full time.”
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