Western senior Anthony Hale sat on the exam table. Tension drenched the air in the cramped room. The doctor walked in without a word and stuck the MRI scan in the light board.
He turned around, a smile across his face.
“It’s all gone.”
After a brain biopsy, two rounds of 5-day in-patient chemotherapy and a month and a half of radiation, Hale’s brain cancer was declared in remission.
“It was one of the most glorious moments of my entire life.” Hale said. “All of [my family] lost it, crying, bawling our eyes out, taking pictures.”
This second chance guided Hale to find his passion: creating hip-hop music. He raps about his struggle with cancer and finding himself.
Unlike some current hip-hop with heavy rhythms that overpower its lyrics, Hale’s old-school-style hip-hop allows his lyrics to carry the song, said Cameron Harris, his close friend.
“It seems hip-hop is moving toward being self-centered and boastful in ways,” Harris said. “I don’t get that impression from any of [Hale’s] work. It’s more a grateful tone and attitude, a celebration of life – an honest evaluation of things that are happening.”
Hale, a human services major, said he strives to make music people can relate to.
In high school, the Bremerton, Wash., native wrote and sang in a hardcore rock band called Count the Hours. He then played bass guitar in a group called Black Mamba.
After a couple years without writing music, Hale sought that outlet again, and started writing hip-hop, he said.
“Hip hop lends itself to more options as far as emotion in things I write,” Hale said. “In hardcore, I felt like I was in a box. I had to write about things I was angry about, and I’m not an angry person anymore.”
Some of his songs are fun while others are serious and recount a traumatizing or moving experience. Geoff Mumley, Hale’s friend and a pastor with Campus Christian Fellowship, said he digs the cadence and imagery in Hale’s music.
“His lyrics are a good mix of clever and profound,” Mumley said. “He doesn’t force the corny rhymes and you can’t anticipate what the [next] word will be.”
His song “Time,” which he performed at Western’s 2013 Relay For Life, illustrates his battle with cancer, what he learned and how he has changed.
“I think [the song] really cemented that reality in me that we all have this certain time here, and what are we doing with that time,” Harris said.
Hale has also performed at Glow Nightclub, The Shakedown and Make.Shift Gallery. He performed at the Redroom in Tacoma and at the Global Bean in Silverdale, Wash.
“The most beautiful struggle”
Hale was diagnosed with brain cancer in September 2009 at age 21.
After attending Warped Tour, a music tour hosted by Vans, Hale developed severe headaches. His doctor said he was dehydrated. He started seeing double. Then his optometrist saw something.
Hale’s tumor was in the pineal, or center region of the brain. He is among the 0.001 percent of people who develop a tumor of its size and location.
“People always ask me, ‘Were you scared? You must have been so scared,’” Hale said. “To be honest, I wasn’t ever scared. I was just ready to take the next step.”
That step was a shunt. Hale was diagnosed with hydrocephalus, an accumulation of extra fluid on the brain. A shunt is a device that allows excess fluid to drain to the abdomen. He will be dependent on a shunt his whole life, said Kanda Hale, his grandmother. His shunt has failed twice, and he is now using his third.
Hale wore a smile throughout his whole treatment, she said.
“He had hiccups constantly,” Kanda Hale said. “But he never complained. He showed an extreme amount of courage and strength.”
Chemotherapy and radiation took an insane toll on his body, Hale said.
“I had ulcers up and down my esophagus. I was physically unable to eat,” Hale said.“I had sores in my mouth. I would get up and go to the bathroom and be so tired that I would have to take a nap. [It was] the worst fatigue you could possibly imagine.”
Kanda Hale compared the brain to a bowl of Jell-O.
“Once you put your finger through it, or you stick a toothpick or pencil or anything through it, it upsets the Jell-O and it is looking for a path to get back together,” Kanda Hale said. “That’s kind of what the brain does.”
For months after receiving surgery, Hale’s grandparents cared for him—feeding, showering and dressing him.
He saw a physical therapist and occupational therapist to regain strength and mental capacity.
A positive outlook made all the difference.
“Your attitude can change the way you do things for better or for worse,” Hale said. “The doctors always told me that your attitude and the way you feel mentally is going to affect you physically.”
His positivity and natural leadership ability has been a blessing for the Campus Christian Fellowship community where Harris and he became friends, Harris said.
Hale will be a group leader next year, Harris said.
Now his goal is to help others.
“I know for a fact that if I could go back and change it now, I wouldn’t,” Hale said. His blue eyes glazed for a moment as tears welled in the corners.
Before being diagnosed, Hale said he had little respect for others.
“I treated people as things that could benefit me and satisfy me, especially women,” Hale said.
Hale was a happy-go-lucky, typical 21-year-old man, Kanda Hale said. He was stuck in a party mode trying to find his direction, she said.
“Cancer was the most beautiful struggle that I could ever ask for,” Hale said. “It brought me to a relationship with God and [gave] me a greater appreciation of my life and the lives of everyone around me,” Hale said.
Before cancer, Hale was not religious. After being declared in remission, he began to ask questions.
“Why was I given this opportunity? Why did I survive?” Hale said. “So many other people that have had [brain cancer] died. That could have been me.”
Cancer launched his search to find faith and a greater purpose, Harris said. He began questioning how he was able to stay positive through treatment and recovery, Mumley said.
“He actually felt like he was being assisted to keep his head up,” Mumley said. “I think that was the initial place he started looking for God and paying attention to the fact that God was looking for him.”
Hale was baptized at Hill Crest Chapel in Bellingham on Easter 2013.
Love and family
Kanda Hale described her grandson as sweet and compassionate to his great-grandmother, who died from Alzheimer's last September at the age of 87, Kanda Hale said. They would dance to swing music together. He held her hand, sang and talked to her.
“He would always tell her, ‘Great-grandma, you’re going to make it to the Smucker’s label,’” Kanda Hale said. Smucker’s has been making jam for more than 100 years, and The Today Show often features photos of people who have celebrated their 100th birthday on the Smucker’s label.
“She’d say, ‘I hope so honey,’” Kanda Hale said.
His value of other people and genuine interest in their stories makes him a people-magnet, Mumley said.
The improvement he made with his occupational therapist has inspired him to pursue a master’s degree in occupational therapy.
“I feel like that and music are my calling in life,” Hale said. “Those are both ways I can use things that have happened to me to help people.”
Cancer was an opportunity; another chance at life, Hale said. It spurred him to ask questions about life and his character and purpose. Hip-hop gives him an outlet to express those thoughts and connect with others.