Megadeth’s Dave Mustaine Breaks Silence on Cancer Battle: ‘I’m Not Gonna Let This Beat Me’
“I never settle for anything but complete success or, in this case, victory,” artist says of his diagnosis and his planned return to the stage this winter
On a late Monday afternoon, Dave Mustaine is feeling good at his Tennessee home. His neighbors’ cows are mooing at each other — loudly — and when he gets on the phone with Rolling Stone, he reports, “I’m just dealing with life.”
In May, the Megadeth frontman was diagnosed with cancer and needed to step away from the spotlight. The band subsequently canceled all of its 2019 touring plans, including an appearance on their own MegaCruise, and the outspoken Mustaine stayed uncharacteristically quiet for most of the year. Still, doctors told Mustaine upon his diagnosis that they hoped for a 90 percent success rate.
In September, he released a statement saying he was almost done with his final round of treatment and that his physicians remained positive. Now that he has been through what he says was the worst of it and will be reuniting with his Megadeth bandmates for their upcoming winter trek through Europe with Five Finger Death Punch, he’s ready to tell his story.
“I’m on the other side of the majority of the treatment, and I feel really strong,” he says. “After the radiation, the guy said all of my test results looked amazing. ‘You look like you’re in a stage 1 and you’re supposed to be in stage 3 right now.’ And then the oncologist said the same thing: ‘You look really strong.’ So we kept moving through the process.”
Mustaine says he’s had two bad days since his diagnosis. And even though he’s not officially in remission, he recently finished the necessary treatment and has started rehabilitation. Mustaine’s ordeal made the band pause work on their new album (they’re planning on releasing a few new songs in advance of the tour), but at the moment he’s most looking forward to getting back on the road. “I’m so excited,” he says of the upcoming tour, “and I can’t wait to fire up my guitars.”
But that should be no surprise, coming from the man who wrote vicious declarations of perseverance like “Peace Sells,” “Victory,” and “Holy Wars … the Punishment Due.” “I figured, I’m not gonna let this beat me,” he says without a hint of worry in his voice. “I’m not gonna let this even scare me.”
How did you find out you had cancer?
I was on tour, and I just had some dental work done when I was at home. My teeth are really, really, really sensitive, because I’m a redhead. When I had a temporary crown replaced with a permanent one, I told the dentist, “It feels like they broke off one of those little pointy tools in my gum.” It just felt like something was wrong in my tooth area. So the dentist goes, “Well, you should go see an oral surgeon.”
So I see the oral surgeon, and he was such a cock. I was in the chair, and he looks at me and then he takes off. And I’m sitting there, and I’m waiting and waiting and waiting, and he comes back in and he goes, “It looks like the Big C. You need to go see an ear, nose, and throat doctor.” I was just stunned with his bedside manner; he was just such a dick. So I went out into my car and I was obviously very upset. And then I went back out on to the Experience Hendrix tour.
“I thought about every single trick that I had learned about healing my body.”
The friend of a guy I have an endorsement deal with is an ER guy, and he came out on tour to look at my throat. And he goes, “Oh, I see this 20 times a day. There’s nothing there. Just get it checked out when you get home.” And I went, “Thank God.” So I went and played the Hendrix stuff. I was having a blast. So when we were playing Florida, we go see an ENT and get checked out. Two weeks go by. I thought, “No news is good news, right?” So I finally get him on the phone, and he goes, “Oh, yeah. You have cancer.”
How did you handle the news?
I went, “Fuck.” And I thought, “OK, Mustaine. You can do this.” And we commenced kicking this thing’s ass. I thought about every single trick that I had learned about healing my body and the things I’d learned from martial arts, and I did everything that the doctor said to a T, and hopefully this is the end of it and I never hear of it again. But I feel great.
So you got cleared to tour?
Well, they didn’t say that. But they’re freaking out over how well I’ve healed. I’ve got people around the globe praying for me. I take good care of myself, and I don’t know how anybody can expect any other outcome than this, knowing me. I never settle for anything but complete success or, in this case, victory.
What specifically did you learn from touring and martial arts to help you through this?
I’ve always been physically active and interested in martial arts. The key for us is not to get better once we get sick; it’s to not get sick. Eastern medication, treatment, and philosophy is to prevent stuff from happening, whereas the Western approach to deal with it after it happened. So when the doctor was telling me what happened, they were freaking out, telling me all the stuff that could go wrong. “If you don’t eat, we’re going to have to give you a feeding tube. And if you don’t do this, we’re going to have to chop your head off and blah, blah, blah.” All right, I’ll do it, I’ll do it.
They said, “You have to keep weight on.” I think I had two-and-a-half days of nonstop, all day long, being sick. And I went to get weighed. My normal weight was anywhere from 185 to 190 and I’m at 171. And they’re freaking. “What’s happened? Are you sick?” “Yeah, I felt kind of sick.” I went home and I figured, “All right. I feel better now.” I just did my normal routine. I went back there, I was back to 185. They go, “How’d you put on so much weight?” I said, “I ate.”
I wasn’t trying to be like, “Oh, boohoo.” The last thing I wanted to do was go in there and be a puss. All the stuff I’ve gone through in my life has gotten me prepared to face anything. Even this.
Did you ever find out the cause of the cancer?
They don’t know what the actual cause is. They know what kind of cancer it is. It’s a squamous cell carcinoma on the base of my tongue. It’s a tumor that you get in your mouth, and it had gone from one side of my mouth, and it had also gone to two lymph nodes. So it was pretty serious.
The diagnosis made me really aware of the little kids that get this disease. When I was in San Diego, I went down to the children’s hospital with the Navy down there, because I was really involved in doing charity work when I could down in San Diego. And I’ll tell you, when you see it, you see the people that have that disease, it’s scary.
“All the stuff I’ve gone through in my life has gotten me prepared to face anything. Even this.”
Did your faith help you keep a positive mindset?
I don’t want to joke around about this, but you’ve seen everything Kanye’s doing right now with his message [releasing the album Jesus Is King]. For me, I think it’s great that he’s doing that. I’ve been praying for a long time, and when this whole thing went down, I prayed a lot. I don’t force it on anybody; I never would do that. But I prayed about it, and I believe that that was the whole reason I got healed so fast. A lot of people’s asses are probably going to grow together right now that I said this, but the truth of the matter is, everybody has their own things that they believe. And I believe that taking good care of myself and being physically fit, as well as spiritually fit, got me back to this point.
Who supported you through this?
My family, especially my wife, is such a rock to lean on. It’s the greatest thing. If I have something that’s going wrong with me, I can turn to my family.
When you announced your diagnosis, there was an incredible outpouring from your fans and peers. That had to have felt good.
It did. It came as quite a surprise. A lot came from people that I knew but I didn’t know cared. Most notably, I got a text message back from my old brother, James Hetfield, and I was so, so happy to hear from him. Contrary to what anybody says and contrary to any of the act that we put on, I love James and I know that James loves me and cares about me. You can see that when the moment of truth is here and I’m telling the world that I’ve got a life-threatening disease. Who comes to stand next to me? James.
And I got a text message from Ozzy, and one from Paul Stanley. It was great to get one from Ozzy; I didn’t expect it from Paul Stanley. That was super bitchin’ because in the beginning, when Kiss first came out, I was just a kid and I loved them.
I’m really grateful for everybody. Even the people who have a hard time with my behavior and my big mouth, I’m just so grateful for them showing care for me. Like they say, at the end of the day, all we’ve got is each other here in this crazy metal community.
Yeah, the encouragement, especially from your fans, was overwhelming.
I am so extremely grateful, and I don’t know how to ever really make it up to everybody helping me get through this. I would love to say, “Everybody who sent me a tweet, come to a free concert.” But that just seems so trivial. I would love to tell them face-to-face, “Thank you. I love you. You helped me get through this,” and give them a hug. But even that, too, just seem so short and insensitive.
I honestly want to say, “Come here. Sit down. Put your pajamas on. Let’s watch TV for a little while, and I’ll tell you all about it.” But I think some of the people would say, “OK, Dave. I’m a 30-year-old guy, and I’m not gonna put my pajamas on and get in bed with you.” I didn’t mean that, I meant, “Let’s sit on the couch with a blanket and we can eat popcorn.” Don’t get weird on me or anything.
It could be a campfire party.
Yeah, get some s’mores and some flashlights and goofy stuff like that.
Was it hard for you to miss your band’s MegaCruise?
I was so disappointed that my condition had caused me not to be well enough to go. But my red blood cell count was down, and all it would take is one wrong guy that was sick with something – some dude that may have a flare-up of something that he had in the past – and that could be the end of my singing days. So it was so difficult to say, “I’m not gonna come on the cruise,” but I knew that the fans would understand, and they rallied around me in such an incredible way.
We got a [cover band] from Canada called Mechanix who did Megadeth songs, and we had some of the fans sing karaoke with that band. I even think Junior [Megadeth bassist David Ellefson] did one of the songs with them. But it was a tremendous success, and I think that everybody had a famously good time. I’m thinking, “You had a great time, this time; imagine what it’s going to be next time, and I’m there, and we get to have fun and throw down and I get to tell you all the crazy stories and we get to rub elbows and shake hands and all that good stuff.”
Are you going to have to live your life differently now on the road?
I might have to. I know that there have been some changes that have been made right now that are going to change things for me. I hope that the fans realize that if I’ve had to modify anything, it’s only so I can keep doing my job. It would never be to do anything shitty like some of these other groups out there.
What do you mean?
You see all this stuff with more lip-syncing and I keep thinking to myself, “Aren’t you ever gonna learn?” These guys just go, “Oh, it’s very demanding to go out there and dance.” Well, then lift some weights, you slob. If you’re a pristine athlete and you can dance and sing at the same time, then you deserve that multimillion-dollar, high-priced ticket. If you can’t, then don’t go and cheat the fans and complain like, “Poor me, I’m up here getting paid so much money to dance and not sing and be a phony.”
“I hope that the fans realize that if I’ve had to modify anything, it’s only so I can keep doing my job.”
Have you started singing yet?
No, I didn’t sing yet. I spoke with Bruce [Dickinson] from Iron Maiden, and he said when he had his disease [a cancerous tumor on the back of his tongue], after his treatment was done, he was told that he needed between three to six months of rest. He said to me that he didn’t listen and had a little bit of trouble, so then he realized he needed to listen. So he did and his voice came back stronger than ever. I care so much about Bruce; he was another really supportive brother to me during this whole thing. He explained to me how he did it, and it really helped. I’m just looking forward to if there’s ever a circumstance where this happens to another one of my peers, I can return the favor and help them. It’s a tricky disease, but they’ve got doctors all over the place that are figuring this shit out.
Do you view your next tour as a victory lap?
I don’t know so much that we would go out and do a victory lap. Without sounding like I’m faking humility, I think it’s a bit pious to go, “Hi, I made it. Here I am. Thanks. I’m so glad I’m here to save the day for you.” Because there are gonna be a lot of people who go, “God, I thought we got rid of you.” As gnarly as that sounds …
Has it been strange for you to see bands like your peers in Slayer doing retirement tours, when you just want to keep going?
No. It doesn’t make me feel weird so much. But I’ve seen some of these bands that have been on retirement tours for 20 years. It just kind of becomes a joke. If you’re on a retirement tour and you make it five years long and you come out of retirement and go back into retirement and so on and so forth, you stand the risk of being fileted by the fans. If they go out and buy a bunch of your merchandise and your swag because they think they’re never gonna see you again, and then you say, “Oh, by the way, I changed my mind,” be prepared to face their wrath.
Mötley Crüe just announced they were coming back, so it will be interesting seeing their fans’ reaction.
No, they didn’t. No, they did not. I knew it. I knew it. I knew it. I fuckin’ knew it. Gosh. I can’t believe that. OK. Next question.
“There’s no way I’m gonna act like I can’t do this. I can do anything if I set my mind to it.”
You sold a lot of guitars recently, and one man bought them all. What did you make of that?
It’s pretty commendable. I’m willing, if I ever meet him, to sign them for him.
He said he was going to have them so people could play them. He’s not just hoarding them.
That’s good. There were 140 items at that place, and I think they sold everything except for 15 things the first day. It was an enormous success.
So what have you been doing to keep your mind busy through all of this?
We were planning on making a new record, but because of the cancer visiting our camp, we’ve had to recalibrate things. The management had suggested we record a few songs prior to going out with the Five Finger Death Punch guys. They had suggested we record three songs as “early offerings.” The other thing, too, is I’ve been going over my new book with my cowriter Joel Selvin. We’re talking about the making of Rust in Peace. So I’m reliving that and listening to the music. So right now, I’m bleeding Rust in Peace. That’s one of the reasons why I can’t wait to get ahold of my guitar because I’m just so excited and so thrilled that I’ve got this adrenaline stuff that’s going on right now like crazy. I just finished the part in the book where I started doing the whole skydiving, and I don’t know if you’ve ever skydived, but what a fun thing to do. What a rush.
It sounds like your head really is in a good space right now.
I’m not letting the cancer get me down. I have to thank the fans and obviously my family and God but there was no way I was going to let this take me down. When [Black Sabbath guitarist] Tony Iommi got cancer, I thought, “Oh, my God, he’s gonna die.” And I actually cried. I wept, because they had said it was stage 4 cancer. And then, when I got it, I thought, “Oh, my God. I’m gonna die.” Because I didn’t know how bad it was. I thought of the fans and how sad everybody was gonna be. And I thought, “I have to beat this.” No matter what, there’s no way I’m gonna act like I can’t do this. I can do anything if I set my mind to it.
Are you looking at life differently now?
Hmmm. I guess I could if I wanted to. I’m not doing that, though. I think it’s real easy to play a victim. Because people go, [cloyingly] “Oh, how are you? How are you doing?” And I feel like sometimes I should go, [using the same tone] “Oh, I’m really good. How are you?” with the same kind of sound as “Are you gonna die?” I’ve tried to stay upbeat about it.