Monday, I spent a most enjoyable afternoon at the residence of local singer and songwriter Casey Comeau. During an animated and characteristically upbeat discussion, Casey talked of what she’s been up to since our last chat over three years ago and of the return of an upcoming rare performance with her former band The Halfmilers, this Sunday afternoon at Andrew Haydon Park. We enjoyed a glass of wine and talked of the country crooner’s first decade as a familiar face on the local music scene.
Casey and I have enjoyed a few beverages together. I look forward to our having many more in the coming years.
But, as we all learned with a stunning jolt Wednesday morning, life offers no guarantees.
Not so long ago, Casey Comeau was a contender for hardest-working-local-woman-in-show-business status. When not fronting her Halfmilers, with whom she had released a promising full-length album in 2003, the vocalist/guitarist/keyboardist was adding colour to the music of other locals, notably Golden Famile. When The Halfmilers dispersed into other projects, Comeau and partner Richard Jeffrey formed The Centretown Wilderness Club, serving up a five-song teaser of a disc in 2006. The pace began to slow soon after that release; as we sat down in her and Jeffrey’s living room Monday, Casey reminded me of a chance meeting between us at the glorious Fontenelle restaurant in Vanier, nearly four years ago.
“You asked when I’d be playing another show,” she related. “And I said I wasn’t sure I felt up to it — that I’d been too tired.”
I confess to not recalling the details of said conversation. But I understand why Casey does.
“I just was really tired,” she explained. “And I had these constant headaches. But who isn’t tired and doesn’t get headaches, right? You know, and I’m in my thirties; I’m getting older. Like, it wasn’t something that worried me. And I was a consultant and I worked really, really hard — I worked a lot of hours and I figured I was just burning myself out. And that’s normal. Until… my skull broke open.”
She laughed at the shock-value of such a revelation, and continued.
“I didn’t realize that’s what it was, but I felt this strange snap behind my ears. I was doing nothing; I was literally walking very quietly and I felt this snap. And it was so weird that I looked in the mirror, but you really can’t see, with hair.”
This was on a Saturday. The following morning, Casey decided to go to a nearby clinic, but it was closed. Monday, she was back at work. Come Friday, after being told her doctor couldn’t see her for several weeks, she began a journey that would take her in short order from clinic to the emergency ward of the Montfort Hospital, to the Civic and brain surgery five days later.
“By now it was a bulge. I knew it feels like something bad could happen at any minute,” she said of her decision to get checked out. “But I still didn’t believe it was serious; it’s weird how you process things.”
At this point Casey reached for her phone to display images of the MRI that ultimately determined that “snap” had been the result of multiple myeloma, a form of cancer related to plasma cells in the bone marrow. It’s a condition that, she noted, is incurable. And while it is becoming less rare, it is not a condition normally associated with a 34-year-old, which Casey was when diagnosed.
“It gets referred to as rare. It’s a rare cancer,” Casey confirmed. “But it’s not incredibly rare. It’s common enough in the hematological world. But it’s not very well known, in part because it’s true there are not very many patients. But also, they’re mostly older. Like, when I was first diagnosed I was reading that the average age was 65. I think that’s no longer true: there are more and more young people getting diagnosed. Nobody knows what causes it, but there are inklings from some scientists that it is environmental. They’ve linked it pretty concretely to agent orange; like, a lot of Vietnam vets were getting it.”
As were people in Casey’s birthplace of Gagetown, NB, whose military base was for a number of years the site of agent orange testing. A class-action suit, she reported, is underway, with myeloma among the conditions named.
“The fact is,” she nonetheless concluded, “there’s no way of knowing” precisely what causes myeloma. Treatment, meanwhile, began with a stem-cell transplant. (“I was lucid before they’d moved me out of the OR,” Casey boasted. “I was cracking jokes with the resident — which, by the way, don’t do that to a brain-surgery resident. They don’t think it’s funny. They think you’re crazy.”) Since then, it’s been daily chemotherapy pills — at $400 per — and treatment whose cost has been covered in part by an assistance program designed to help lessen the financial load of necessary drugs such as Velcade. Many of the costs — notably the required medicine — associated with treating multiple myeloma, it seems, are not covered by OHIP.
Which is to say without financial assistance, Comeau could not afford the cancer treatment that has kept her alive and fighting for three years and counting. It seems the sort of thing that might turn one into an activist.
“Well, not yet,” she said with a laugh. “Mostly I’ve just been whining — to people who will listen. And, so far, I’ve actually been able to get all the drugs that I need. But it doesn’t seem right. It doesn’t seem right that the drug companies are charging that much for it. I don’t fully understand the ins and outs of the entire thing, but I don’t understand why the hospitals are making the decisions that they are. I do understand that we have limited resources for health. That’s why I’m not an activist, because I’m not really in a position to say, ‘Okay, I know what’s going on and I know what’s right and I know what should be happening.’ My gut feeling is we pay for cancer drugs for cancer patients. That’s what hospitals do. They pay for your chemo. Why is mine not paid for? There seems to be something that’s not correct there. I’m sure there can probably be a case made for the other side: well, it hasn’t been proven, we would pay for this but we won’t pay for that… I’m sure there’s some other way that they can spin it.”
Likewise, Comeau questions the federal government’s refusal to grant her disability benefits through the Canada Pension Plan during treatment.
“I was denied,” she said, “because the disease is ‘not severe or prolonged enough.’ I was like, ‘How is terminal not severe enough?’ Really? So the Canadian government kind of fell down on a few points.”Which has contributed to Casey’s activism in another area — that of fundraising for myeloma research and care at the Ottawa Hospital. Last year, she participated in the first local Multiple Myeloma March, in the process single-handedly bringing in $11,000 of the $106,000 raised for the cause. Sunday, Sept. 22, she will again be walking the walk at Andrew Haydon Park, and following her further augmenting her efforts by reuniting with those Halfmilers for an afternoon concert in the park. The band should take the stage around 4 p.m.-ish, and will have CDs on sale. All proceeds from the pay-what-you-can disc sales will, naturally, go to the Ottawa Hospital. Feel free to sponsor Casey, if you can’t make it out for the show.
“I was hesitant,” she admitted of hitting people up for donations. “It’s hard to solicit people for money. But then, it’s not for me. It’s for these patients. We all depend on other people. The only reason I’m still alive today is because of countless other people — scientists, researchers, doctors, nurses, donors, hospitals. So I just feel this is me doing my part.
“The thing with myeloma patients is very few of us are in as good health as I am. Like, my friend Karen was diagnosed six months after me; she died in May.”
Spend a few minutes with Casey and you too will be heartened by just how good her health appears to be. Certainly, I cannot recall a time when my spirits were as high as hers. But that’s Casey. And as she enthused about reviving the Halfmilers for an afternoon, she was quick to note that she and Richard have recently done some recording with the wonderful Krista Muir, that she has been active in her basement recording studio, that she has in recent months played with The Mercy Buckets, Slo’ Tom and The Shakey Aches, and that she is determined to complete another album.
“We’ll see,” she mused. “I’m starting to get a little more energy these days. Every month, a little more energy.
“I just need to rest a lot. I go to bed, like, two hours ago. And sometimes I do spend all day in bed. Like, regularly — a couple of days a week. A lot of times it takes me a while to get going. So it’s mostly just lack of energy — and pain — that I’m dealing with in general. We don’t really know what’s causing the pain, ’cause it still seems to be probably in remission. Myeloma’s tricky. Like, we do say remission, but some people say you can’t say remission, because it’s incurable, so there’s no such thing as it actually being gone — it’s just non-active. My last two blood tests showed that the markers were elevated: they’re in the dangerous range. But I’m not in full treatment; I’m still just taking maintenance drugs.”
And looking forward to a day out Sunday that will include a purposeful walk followed by a welcome get-together with her old friends the Halfmilers. “This is going to be fun,” she enthused, as she cautiously considered the likelihood of further Halfmilers gigs. She pointed out that guitarist Darrell Angus and drummer Tim Matthews have kids now, which limits their availability.
“You know,” she said with a smile, “we’ve all got our growths to deal with.”