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David Mead performing at the Mercury Cafe in 2015.EXPAND
David Mead performing at the Mercury Cafe in 2015.
Kurt Bauer

Avant-Garde Musician David Mead on Living With Cancer

A longtime vital member of Denver’s avant-garde music community, multi-instrumentalist David Mead was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia in 2008. He opted to watch and wait to see if his symptoms worsened before getting chemotherapy. He dealt with mild symptoms for another decade by eating well and consuming medical/surgical grade THCA.

Last January, Mead, who had moved back to his home town of Roscommon, Michigan, in 2017 to take care of his father, who has severe Parkinson’s Disease, began having pain from his right foot all the way to his knee. Doctors initially diagnosed it as "drop foot"; however, after doing some tests, they noticed that the leukemia had spread to his spinal fluid. A doctor would eventually find a hairline fracture in Mead’s back, which Mead thinks might have happened after a bicycle accident four years ago while he was living in Boulder. He says the cancer might have spread into his spine through the fracture and multiplied.

Although Mead started doing chemo, he developed peripheral neuropathy in both feet. A week ago, his health began deteriorating and his vision started worsening. After some time in the hospital, he was able to return home yesterday, July 7.

“My legs are really weak,” Mead says. They don't feel like my own anymore. The neuropathy has also crept into my left leg all the way up to the calf. I’m really shaky. And this all, really, in the last week, because beyond a week ago, I was working on getting my leg stronger. And even with neuropathy, I was getting back on my road bike — cycling as exercise, because I could still do that, even though I can't walk.“

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Mead says his vision is like someone turned a dimmer from ten to two and put the iris of the eye of God right in front of him.

“So if I look at something, it completely blurs it out with crazy color,” he says. “And there are black striations in the top and left in my vision that look like borders that everyone gets, but they're oily black. Those are getting thinner, and that's the only improvement. The color bloom and the gray level are both really bad.”

Mead — who with the help of his girlfriend, Cathy Allen, has a lengthy recovery ahead of him with physical therapy and doctors — thinks his vision might get better.

To cover some of his medical costs, Cody Hoeckelberg launched a GoFundMe to raise $4,000. In the near future, Mead says, he’ll being eating well and doing physical therapy with a walker.

“Dying is not an option,” he says. “It’s something I’ve always known from childhood with epilepsy and everything else: Fighting back is your best option. I've just got to do it again. And that's what I'm doing. It's just what it is. And I understand that your only control is over your own reaction. That's all I get, and I'm going to fight for it. I will be back. However much sensation I ever get, if I get any, back in my legs, is what I get. But it's adapt or die, and I choose adaptation.”

Since being diagnosed with CLL more than a decade ago, Mead has played tenor saxophone, bass clarinet, percussion and various other instruments in local avant-garde and improv groups; he and ANIMAL / object shared the stage with the Violent Femmes at Red Rocks in 2015. Mead also performed with Aenka (along with Becca Mhalek, David Kurtz and me), and he appears on more than twenty albums on Kurt Bauer’s BangSnap label.

During the first two years after his initial diagnosis, Mead says, he went to support groups that dealt with various blood-related cancers. He saw a broad range of reactions to it.

“Some people were really fear-based, and they tell me they had gone through chemo and went through it right off the bat to get rid of it," he explains. "And that even after doing that, it came back more aggressively. Some people told me that they understood the watch-and-wait, and they watched and they waited, and they decided to wait until they were sick enough to go.”

Following a gig at the Mercury Cafe, Mead recalls, he was approached by a man in his support group who looked him in the eye and said, “I know that you were struggling on whether or not to do chemo, and I'm glad that you chose not to, because now I see what you're doing here. You're living a life, and you're being creative, and you're being yourself, and you might not have had the chance to do that if you chose to go to chemo first, because chemo’s a bitch and breaks you way down. I want you to know that I think you made the right decision to live as much as you could before it hit you, because a lot of other people didn't have that opportunity.”

Mead says from that point on, he had a life to live, and while he thought he had finally beat cancer last year, it caught up with him.

“I had to be ready for the fight,” he says. “But until that point, I really just had so many things that I wanted to do that I hadn't accomplished, and that was my opportunity to do that, and I took it.”

Since moving back to Michigan to care for his father, he hasn't been playing music.

"My town would never tolerate the kind of music that I play," he says. "I mean, I'm the guy with tattoos and a funny mustache that's still wearing his Sepultura shirt and camo shorts, and he plays a snakeskin Japanese banjo. I don't exactly fit in." 

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