Cancer diagnosis sparks ‘creative renaissance’ for retired indie musician

Leukemia? It made no sense.

One day, Steve Neville was at home studying for his doctorate, playing with his healthy newborn son, Leo.

Two weeks later he was in a Hamilton hospital battling for his life with acute myeloid leukemia (AML), a cancer of the blood and bone marrow.

There was no family history. No obvious cause. No failing health signals in the previous weeks and months.

“I was caught off guard,” says the 33-year-old student/father/musician, who was diagnosed in February 2021 and has since made a full, albeit mild, recovery.

“Two weeks before the cancer diagnosis, I was in perfect health. I assumed it was COVID. ”

He was living in Hamilton at the time, exposed to environmental pollution which he believes may have played a part in his illness. As his symptoms grew more extreme, he feared the worst.

“My eyes were bleeding inside,” he says.

“I had double pneumonia. I had been sick at home for two weeks when I went to the emergency room. They told me a few hours later, “You have leukemia. For the next 10 days, I fought for my life.

And then, as he endured torturous chemotherapy treatments over the next three months, his life went into an emotional tailspin.

“I felt guilt,” he notes. “My partner, Amanda, was a brand new mom. Our son was five months old and it completely transformed our life in a different direction.

“I was physically very ill. I couldn’t see, I couldn’t take five steps. I could barely speak and had trouble breathing. I was also incredibly scared and grieving, not just for myself but for my family.

In that turbulent three-month period between the diagnosis and a lifesaving stem cell transplant from her sister Jacquie, as well as an eco-friendly move to Guelph, there have been many dark nights of the soul.

“Making those first phone calls to my partner and family members was incredibly difficult,” he recalls from a bench in a Guelph park, wearing an N95 mask because, in his immunocompromised state, he can’t stand himself. afford not to.

“Not only being away from them but, because you’re still working on those emotions, you feel incredibly depressed and scared.”

He had to do something, let them know what they wanted to say, in case he couldn’t.

“I wrote letters to all my family members and to my partner,” says Neville, who attributes his passion for storytelling to his Aboriginal roots in the Métis community of Georgian Bay and surrounding areas. “Some kind of final message.”

But when it came time to say goodbye to his infant son, he froze: “It was the only time I couldn’t write a letter. I was very aware that if I was going to die, my son would never remember me. He was at an age where he didn’t even speak yet.

How could he put his hopes, his regrets and, most importantly, his love into words, knowing that he might not be there when his son was old enough to read them?

“I tried to do it many times, but I was in tears,” says Neville, who becomes emotional as he recounts the experience.

“So I ended up writing him a song – ‘Forever Yours’ – basically apologizing for not being there to watch him grow and share my stories with him.

“Little boy, how sorry I am,” he sings on the soulful track from his new album, “Off Track.”

“That I couldn’t share my story with you. But you are my greatest glory.

“Most of the songs, while I was writing the lyrics, I was crying in my hospital room,” says the likeable musician, who sees the album as a musical diary of his illness and, with its catchy Beatlesque melodies, a path to healing.

“The album was therapy – not only to get me through the day in the hospital, but also to allow me to work through those emotions and face my biggest fears. The song will probably make you cry, but it there is also a lot of hope and resilience.

Music, ironically, was a career he thought he had given up in 2016 after his respected indie pop band The Balconies opened for illustrious artists like Sloan, Devo and Tokyo Police Club, played high-profile festivals but , in the end, couldn’t land that prestigious, career-making record deal.

“When I was doing it professionally, it was a difficult environment,” he recalled of the promising trio which included his sister Jacquie.

“I was touring constantly, doing 150 shows a year.”

It was too much. He wanted to spend time with his girlfriend. He wanted to start a family, continue his studies, do a doctorate in media studies, teach one day.

And yet here he is, post-cancer, releasing his first album in six years, produced with the support of the Métis Nation of Ontario.

“It’s not something I expect to make a living out of,” he insists, the antithesis of a strategic self-promoter. “It’s a passion project.”

Its purpose is practical: to help people with cancer and those who support them cope with emotional devastation and counter the myth of the fearless “cancer warrior”, a strong, resilient and positive figurehead who lives for inspire others.

As the son of a social worker who experienced the trauma of a life-threatening diagnosis firsthand, he knows there is more to surviving cancer than just a challenge.

“There’s not a lot of talk about what’s really hard – the really human raw emotions,” he points out, noting that he’s only halfway through his two-year journey to healing and that he will never regain full lung capacity.

“You have to cry and work through them, otherwise you’re going to be very angry. You will just explode and it will affect your health.

Neville’s album – a self-proclaimed “creative renaissance” dedicated to all those who have been touched by cancer – is available at $2 from each album sale will be donated to the Canadian Cancer Society.

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