Back in 2001, TESTAMENT frontman Chuck Billy was diagnosed with cancer, which resulted in the band’s temporary hiatus and the nine year wait between 1999’s “The Gathering” and 2008’s “The Formation of Damnation”. In a recent interview with Legendary Rock Interviews, he explains how he survived the disease.
You went through a well-documented health scare about a decade ago. A lot of us who are fans and hate doctors visits received a big wake-up call from hearing about you, but I’ve always wanted to know what symptoms did you have or when did you knew something was wrong?
I had started smoking cigarettes at that time. I had been smoking for about two or three months and I was just walking up the stairs in my house and just huffing and puffing and thinking, “Man, these cigarettes are just killing me. I gotta stop smoking, I can’t breathe.” That was the first thing I noticed. I think I was just really fortunate and blessed and had an angel looking down on me because I probably would have just kept right on smoking anyway, and I was the kind of guy that never went to the doctor. I probably hadn’t been to the doctor since my high school physical to play football. One day, totally out of the blue, a real estate agent knocked on my door and told me that she had somebody who wanted to buy my house. My house wasn’t even for sale but she just had someone she was talking to who had told her that they wanted to buy my house. I told her I wasn’t interested but just wondered how much she’d sell it for and when she told me how much she could sell it for I was like, “Well, okay, if you can sell it for that much than maybe I am interested.” [laughs] So she did. She sold it and at that time I was playing with these guys in Antioch, which was about an hour from my house and hanging out in this really nice little country town with not a lot going on out there. So when we sold our house, I told my wife, “Hey, let’s move out there. It’s quiet, on a river. Let’s go there.” So, the drummer I was working with there was a guy from Sadus and his wife worked at a hospital there and recommended a doctor, and my wife and I decided to switch doctors and dentists and everything and meet them and all of us go get a physical. The doctor called back and everything was fine with my wife but they wanted me to come in for a CAT Scan on my chest and further X-rays. That’s how they found it. So it was kind of like a fluke situation. If that lady never knocked on my door to sell my house, I probably would have died and never see it coming because I had a tumor in my chest that was the size of a squash. It was growing off of my heart and pushing on my lungs, which is why I couldn’t breathe. I didn’t have any space in there for my lungs to expand.
I stupidly smoke a few little cigars here and there so that’s pretty freaky shit. There was no pain or anything?
No pain, nothing, just some shortness of breath. They did biopsies, and what my doctor told me was that my body had built a shell around the tumor, I guess, trying to fight it and it built a thick shell around the tumor. When they did the first biopsy, it came back with a negative result because of that shell until they went deeper. When they went deeper, that was when they broke it open, and it started spilling out, and when that happened that was when the doctor was like, “Okay, it’s spilling out. Monday you’re starting chemotherapy.” And that’s when all of that began.
All of that therapy almost sounds worse than the tumor, but you’ve spoken about how you actually found help through more traditional Native American means right?
Yeah, I had a friend who I grew up with, and she cut my hair and she moved out to L.A., but every time we would go out, that way we’d get together. One time we went to the Rainbow Bar & Grill, and she actually told me that she had a dream. For about a year before that, she had been telling me about this medicine man named Charlie that she really wanted me to meet and telling me how we looked alike and basically just saying she really wanted me to meet him. We never did, but that night she told me that she had a dream that he and I were sitting around a fire putting on warpaint about to go into a battle together. I mean, we’re drinking at the Rainbow and I’m like, “Yeah, yeah, whatever,” and it kind of went in one ear and out the other. One day I came home after having chemotherapy and Charlie showed up to my house unannounced when I was home alone, and right away when we met, there was a connection as if we had known each other for a while, and I was really comfortable with him. He came in and said he was going to perform a healing ceremony on me and that after he was done, he was going to sit me down and we were gonna talk and explain a couple things to me. I laid on the floor and he had an eagle scepter and a flute and was chanting, and I can tell you that I had my eyes closed and saw myself floating through the sky and he just took me on this journey. I was like traveling through the sky and I heard the wind and wolves and howling and chanting and I was thinking to myself, “How’s he doing all this?” because it was this really trippy experience. He wiped an eagle feather across my chest and it was like something moved inside of me and then he sat me down to talk to me and explain a few things. He said there were things that were going to happen that weren’t going to make any sense to me, but when they start happening, I will notice that things will start falling into place and make sense. He told me that the wind was actually going to be my spirit guide and that the wind was going to be very important in communicating what was happening to me. Then he was gone. It all happened within the span of about an hour. Weeks went by, and we had a barbecue and had some friends over, and this night I was woken up in the middle of the night because of the wind, and I went to the bathroom because I was having all these stomach issues at that time. My stomach just didn’t feel right and I couldn’t go to the bathroom for days at a time. I walked downstairs and sat in our guest bathroom. Outside the window of our guest bathroom and outside the bathroom, there was this little gathering funnel cloud and these beer cans clinking together and just making this rattling noise spinning in the wind. I sat on the toilet and released something out of my body and had this weird sensation and the wind stopped and the beer cans hit the ground. Right then I just had this overwhelming sensation that I got the sickness out of my body and I went upstairs and woke my wife up and said, “Hey, I don’t have cancer anymore. I’m cured. I just got rid of it downstairs.” [laughs] She, of course, thought I was crazy and out of my mind and that was that. That week when I went in for my blood tests to see what my levels were and all this, my doctor says, “Wow, your tumor is cancer-free,” and I just became a true believer at that point.
I would imagine. Wow.
I really wasn’t prior to that. I was raised a Catholic and never really followed the Native culture or beliefs and spirituality until I had become sick but when he told me that and explained the chain of events I really became a true believer. I didn’t tell the doctors anything. They told me I was cancer-free, but the tumor was still there but too big to operate on. I went back to the Native traditions and I traveled out to L.A. with my son and went to sweat lodges and healing places down there. I traveled up into the foothills because another friend of mine had another medicine man who was a direct descendant of Geronimo and lived with and raised wolves. We pulled up in front of his house and he has a pack of wolves there and a small one in a cage but had two that roamed free and one that sat on the porch. My friend said, “You have to approach the house, and if the wolves show aggression, that means you can’t go inside but if they don’t then you can pass.” So I walked up and I passed the wolf and went inside, and he taught me grounding techniques to ground myself with the earth and use the energy of the earth to focus the energy on shrinking my tumor and we spent some time talking, and by this time I was just becoming more and more of a believer and knew that I was going to go home and continue practicing this and beat this. So, after a couple of weeks of that, I go in to see my doctor and found out that my tumor was now small enough to have an operation. I went in and had open-heart surgery to cut the tumor out and have been free of it ever since. From that point forward, I knew I would always be a believer, that no matter what path I took or road I chose, my spirituality and belief in Native culture would be strong.
The rest of the interview can be read here.