One-Armed Guitar Player Won’t Let Mesothelioma Upstage Him

Treatment & Doctors

Written by Tim Povtak

Reading Time: 6 mins
Publication Date: 09/04/2015
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Alan Lane lost his right arm in a logging accident 34 years ago, and it changed his life, but he never stopped loving his guitar. He re-taught himself to play even better music with a custom prosthesis and an outdoorsman’s resilience.

Mesothelioma will be his next mountain to climb.

Lane left his idyllic 10-acre homestead on the scenic Yaak River in northwest Montana this week to travel 1,685 miles by train to reach the bustling University of Chicago Cancer Center for a consultation and screening with renowned mesothelioma specialist Dr. Hedy Kindler.

“I know it’s a grim outlook. I know what I’m facing, and no doubt mesothelioma will get you eventually,” Lane said before leaving home. “But I’m a fighter, and if you’re lucky, you might be able to fight it long enough to still get in a few more good years. So this is worth a shot.”

Kindler is overseeing a promising clinical trial involving the CRS-207 immunotherapy vaccine, a weakened and genetically modified form of Listeria. It has been effective in extending lives when combined with chemotherapy, and it’s helping to treat several different cancers.

He and his wife, Wendy, traveled to Chicago with no guarantee that he will be accepted into the trial. They will return home by the weekend and travel back to Chicago later this month if he qualifies for the clinical trial.

He was deemed ineligible last month for another mesothelioma clinical trial involving photodynamic therapy at the Abramson Cancer Center in Philadelphia. Researchers declined his participation in that trial because of his mixed cell type of mesothelioma.

If he is accepted this time, Chicago will become his new home. He’ll undergo a few months of vaccines and closely monitored chemotherapy cycles during his stay.

“I don’t know if this will work for me, but there aren’t a lot of choices with this disease if you want to live a little longer,” he said. “I’ll either beat this thing, or it will beat me. But I think I’ve got the right attitude. I’ve had setbacks in life before and found ways to get through them.”

A Talented Musician Who Overcame the Odds

Lane, 66, is a recently retired U.S. Forest Service employee known in northwest Montana for the music he plays so passionately and how he plays it.

“Losing the arm changed my life. I was unlucky it happened, but lucky at the same time because I never saw it coming, and it almost killed me,” he said. “The big log just mashed my arm right off. At first, I thought it was the end of my guitar playing. But ask any musician, and he’ll tell you, you can’t live without the music.”

Lane watched another one-armed guitar player online, saw how it worked, and then helped design the end of his new limb specifically for picking guitar strings. He calls it “the thumper.”

The accident stole his right arm, but it heightened his love of music. His days as a lumberjack came to an end. Although he later joined the Forest Service, his days of moonlighting with a band on weekends were just heating up.

“It took me a little time after the accident, and at first it, scared the hell out of me [playing in front of people], but it became something I really enjoyed,” he said. “Just a hobby I loved. It was music my heart beat to.”

Between the Alan Lane Band and a duet called the 17-Mile Band, Lane has been playing close to 30 small gigs a year in Montana, anywhere from the Yaak River Tavern to the Symes Hotel in Hot Springs. The music is a mix of Western folk, blues and hillbilly.

He has played in saloons, coffee shops, open-mike nights and county fairs, always with a gusto that is easy to like and tough to match until now.

Mesothelioma Robbed Him of His Stamina

His last appearance at Liquid Louie’s Tavern in July left him drained physically, reminding him the mesothelioma was worsening. His stamina had taken a significant hit. He promptly canceled most of the remaining dates on his schedule.

“I just told my partner I can’t do this anymore,” he said. “It hurt me to say that, but it takes a lot of energy to play a two-and-a-half hour show like we do. Now I play three or four songs and need a break.”

His guitar playing in August was spent mostly on the back deck of the home he built himself, where the bear, deer, moose and other wildlife often wander through his property.

“I’m ready to do whatever you have to do,” he said. “The worst part about it so far is the coughing. It drives me nuts. But I’m going to live life to the fullest for as long as I can. It’s why I’m gambling with this trial.”

Lane retired almost four years ago, looking forward to playing more music and putting the finishing touches on the home he has been building and living in for 30 years.

Late in the spring, he started having unusual shortness of breath while he was working on the shop he was building next to his home. His coughing wouldn’t stop, either. One test led to another, and another, and by late June he was diagnosed with malignant pleural mesothelioma.

He has been seeing a specialist at the CARD Clinic (Center for Asbestos Related Disease) in Libby, Montana, which is 40 miles away and the site of the asbestos-contaminated vermiculite mines that caused one of America’s largest environmental disasters in history. The last mine was closed 25 years ago.

Lane never worked in the mines and never lived any closer to Libby, but he did visit there regularly when he was younger. Libby is where he caught the Amtrak train that brought them to Chicago.

“The statistics are not real good. They’re not on my side. The shop will probably never get finished now,” he said. “But who knows what medical science will come up with? To me, this trial is worth a shot.”

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