Two thousand people were in attendance the night Justin Anderson took the stage as both his past and future selves. It would have been called the present at the time, and it didn’t last long. The final concert that Comrade Generator would ever play marked the only glimpse the general public would catch of this transformation between the two characters. When Anderson says, “I went from one person to another pretty much overnight,” this is the closest anyone who knows his story can come to putting a finger on that particular evening if it exists other than just as an expression.
The crowd went wild each time Anderson, the lead singer of the band, would point to his t-shirt. Why did they do that? Because his t-shirt had the words, “F— Cancer” on it. Why did the shirt say that? Because the 26-year-old had recently learned that he had brain cancer, and well, he wanted it to get f—ed. How recently? So fresh off the news that he still had staple marks on the side of his skull from having a walnut-sized tumor removed from his brain just a few weeks prior. The neurosurgeon who performed the procedure was in the audience.
The foul language, the role as the center of attention, the all out rocking out – these were parts of the past self saying one last goodbye. The anaplastic astrocytoma that threatened his life and made him confront his mortality, the prayer circle with the main act of the show Sevendust backstage – these were hinting of the future.
That night Anderson entertained sweaty fans, sold CDs and signed autographs – including one upon request from Sevendust – all while the news that he had anywhere between three to five years to live based on the average outlook of his condition swam laps through his mind. For that one evening, he was everything and everyone he’s ever been at the same time.
After the concert concluded he packed his belongings. He was heading for Hope Lodge – a center in Iowa City for cancer patients undergoing intense treatment. The morph was complete. The sun was up which made it morning, meaning the overnight was over.
“Before cancer was on my radar, I was self centered, I was careless, reckless and I just really didn’t see a lot of the world outside myself,” Anderson said. “I was playin’ all these shows and the shows kept getting bigger and my head kept getting bigger along with that. I really didn’t have any direction or sense of purpose in life other than to rock ‘n’ roll, whatever that meant.
“Now, it’s crazy. I’m a Christian, I’m one of the youth leaders at church, I teach the bible to kids, I’m going to trek to Mount Everest, I’m married, I’m going to college. It’s nuts.”
Sure, the arm tattoos, three-step handshake and typical 20-something sense of relaxed fashion may not scream Bible Basher. But the new Anderson would rather talk about his beautiful wife, reconnecting with nature and his family on his recent hiking trip, and how we’d all be better off getting to know our creator rather than discussing sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll.
One could play devil’s advocate and say, sure, ask Jesus to become your friend when you’re facing brain cancer. But the first time Anderson started attending church in his adult life – three weeks before the tumor was discovered.
“If he would have started going to church after he found out he would have thought it was for different reasons,” said his wife Alicia, who has been a devout Christian her entire life and had put the offer on the table for Justin to join her any time.
Anderson considered himself more of an atheist before, but he speaks of his not-so-distant past as he might as well be describing another person. When asked if he ever viewed religion in a negative light when his attendance of the services and the diagnoses of his disease basically coincided, his answer is “No way.” He’s thankful he began going when he did.
“That was very significant for me,” Anderson said, “Because that was my first understanding that God truly knows me because he knows that had I have started going to church after my diagnosis, my analytical mind would have deciphered that as you’re just feeling these emotions and you’re going to church because you think you’re going to die.”
Today he speaks of beating brain cancer as if it was a hangnail, a paper cut at worst. He says it with a smirk, but Justin Anderson believes with his entire mind, body and soul that he’s going to live to be 100. He says it so often that it’s the headline of a hometown newspaper article. But there was a time he thought the opposite.
“I was pretty pessimistic about it at first. But once I got down to those dark recesses of my mind and really contemplated death, I just flipped the switch and I’m optimistic now,” he says with a gentle laugh. “It happened in my darkest moments when I was sitting there facing death. I’m sitting there contemplating lying on the deathbed with my family around me, going through my life. That’s when I really started to be able to examine myself I think.”
Although he tries to push the dark times out of his mind, once in a while they’ll pop back in. Having just finished his final round of chemo just weeks ago, it’d be unlikely to imagine cancer having completely left his thoughts.
“You hear about somebody who died from brain cancer and think about it,” he said. “Now it’s not so much the thought of dying. It’s the thought of leaving behind what I have here. And that’s my wife and my family. That’s what scares me the most, but it’s not gonna happen.”
The first person Anderson met with brain cancer after his own diagnosis was a man at the Hope Lodge named Dalton. Through a few quick anecdotes it’s easy to tell that the man’s aphorisms could easily stick with you, as they have with Anderson after Dalton passed away last September. Anderson recalled a line from a letter his late friend left him which sums up the approach to optimism in another way.
“My favorite quote from the note was, ‘When life hands you lemons, take them back to the store, exchange them for limes and make margaritas.’” Anderson recited from memory. “So I think that’s kind of what’s happened here.”
Anderson’s sense of humor and all around take on life is contagious. And the way he is able to make light of his condition is at times startling.
After being reminded for a second time to send an email to aid in the telling of this story, Anderson replied:
“Dude!… Sorry I didn’t get right back at ya. (Brain cancer, ya know…) :)”
“I think he’s always been a little bit of a clown and jokin’ around and telling stories,” said Justin’s father, Scott Anderson. “It’s almost like a defense mechanism maybe. And that’s great. Whatever it takes to help him get through this.”
Justin’s family values are at the core of his life today, but he admitted that he didn’t used to call his mom and sister nearly as much as he should’ve, and that he and his father didn’t speak much after his parents’ divorce. Faced with a life-threatening illness, priorities scrambled into the order in which he wishes they’d always been.
“After cancer it was like, ‘Wow, what would we do without each other?’” Justin said of his father, “My dad’s the greatest dad in the world.”
The father and son took a 12-hour drive into the heart of the Smoky Mountains this past December, marking the first time just the two of them had taken a trip together. Justin’s father recalled the amazement on his son’s face after they hiked for endless hours throughout the dense trees and came upon a clearing that allowed them to look out over the whole world.
“I think it overwhelmed him a bit,” Scott said.
Since the getaway, Anderson has taken up photography and an appreciation of nature thanks to his father. He will have his first gallery showing in Minneapolis throughout April and May, and the tagline of his website (www.justinclimbingmountains.com) now reads, “the diary of a tree-hugging, God fearing, cancer survivor.”
The beauty of the world and the ugliness of cancer have combined together to shift Anderson’s perspective on life.
“I think it’s opened his eyes a lot,” Scott Anderson said of his son’s experiences in the past year. “Not only to what’s out there, but things that are possible for him to do. Everybody around him, our friends or family watching this have all been effected by the way he’s handled it, the things he’s had to go through, the way he’s dealt with it day to day. I don’t think he ever had any idea that he could affect that many people. He’s grown into an amazing young guy.”
When Justin called his dad to inform him of the opportunity to go to Nepal with a group of 13 other cancer survivors this April, his dad’s advice: “Pack your bags.”
Even though Justin will live to be 100, his dad, sees no point in not seizing the day.
“We’re making sure that we get some things done that he wants to do,” Scott Anderson said. “I don’t want to say just in case, but we don’t know what tomorrow brings.”
With a hole in his brain, Anderson has some concerns for what effects the altitude might have on him, but he’s been doing his research.
“I’ve been finding out that there’s really no way to know for sure what’s gonna happen to me up there,” he said. “I need to keep myself well hydrated, get up there slowly and know my body and observe the symptoms. I can’t miss this man. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing. If I have brain swelling and I die up there, I died on Mount Everest man. That’s cool. How cool would my obituary be?”
His goals are to get closer with God through the bible – one of two items he’s definitely packing. The other is a travel guitar. Even though he’s not the rock star he was of the past, he still plays acoustic by himself and is taking request from all genres, not just Christian tunes.
“It’s about the music,” he said. “Jesus hung out with sinners.”
One can’t help but wonder after meeting the Justin Anderson of today what he was like before cancer. Thanks to this modern world, the Internet makes a lot possible. His band’s videos on YouTube feature the current tree-hugging, God fearing, cancer survivor screaming into the microphone and telling the audience, “So right now let’s show these guys how Clear Lake Iowa knows how to party!” as the crowd erupts and music blares.
After witnessing the contrast of two worlds, you then ponder what would be stranger: To know the Anderson of old and see the man he is today or meet him now and discover his past? To live in light and experience dark for the first time or to be enveloped in black and suddenly see white? Perhaps that’s too extreme. There’s got to be some crossover of both worlds that still remains.
When asked of the meaning behind the journey to Nepal, Anderson ponders for a few seconds, searching for all the right words.
“I kicked cancer’s ass, I can kick Everest’s ass.”
So maybe he’s still got a little rock star in him.