If stubbornness is a virtue, then Abigail Henderson ought to be its living patron saint.
For more than four years, she has withstood a relentless assault by the cancer in her body; each time it has succumbed to her resolve.
During her most recent battle in January, even her closest friends were about to concede that she would die. Three months later, her duo Tiny Horse was performing at RecordBar.
This weekend, Henderson and Tiny Horse will participate in the fifth annual Apocalypse Meow benefit, a fundraiser started in 2008 by fellow musicians and the local music community after doctors told her she had a pernicious and lethal form of breast cancer. Henderson has been part of the local music scene for more than a decade, performing with bands such as Trouble Junction, Gaslights and Atlantic Fadeout.
She is candid about her initial prospects of survival.
“The thing that’s most awesome about this year’s event is I’m not dead yet,” she said. “I’m still here. We didn’t think that was necessarily going to be the case when we started this.”
“This” is an event that has become a rallying point for local musicians and that has spawned the parent Midwest Music Foundation, another nonprofit group that promotes the music scene with events like the MidCoast Takeover, a Kansas City/Lawrence music showcase during the annual South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas.
It’s a classic case of something good emerging from one person’s dire situation.
“That first year of Meow, it was amazing.” Henderson said. “The music community rallied around me. It all happened spontaneously, and it was kind of overwhelming.” The MMF has since grown and flourished.
Since then, she and her husband and longtime bandmate, Chris Meck, have learned a lot about the critical need for good health insurance and financial assistance for those who have no insurance or not enough insurance.
Henderson bought a policy before she became ill, a “hit-by-a-bus catastrophic policy,” she calls it. Even with the insurance, she and Meck have accumulated health care costs and had to hire a lawyer to battle her insurance company over her coverage. The bills were daunting.
“Medical bills can throw you into poverty in a week — in one day. There’s nothing like standing in your kitchen opening a hospital bill for $63,000 one day and then $47,000 the next. After a while you don’t want to open them anymore. Who can pay that?”
Her cancer never went into complete remission, but after some grueling chemotherapy treatments it did recede and retreat. In December, Henderson’s cancer returned and launched another aggressive assault. Toward the end of the month, an oncologist effectively told her she’d run out of treatment options.
“Basically they were saying, ‘Here’s some morphine. When things start to get really bad, call hospice,” Meck said.
By then the cancer had spread to her throat and was squeezing her trachea. She was having trouble breathing and talking and she was deteriorating rapidly.
“I’d lost 40 pounds in three weeks,” she said. “I was wasting away.”
“It was a really, really bad time,” said Amy Farrand, a former bandmate and one of Henderson’s closest friends.
At that point, Meck said, “Every day I wondered whether this would be the day she couldn’t breathe anymore and I’d have to call an ambulance.”
On Jan. 2, she and Meck went to the Jackson County Courthouse to get a marriage license.
“She was so weak, she could hardly breathe and could barely make it up the courthouse steps,” Meck said. “The woman who helped us was getting all teary. It was pretty grim.”
“And it took forever,” Henderson said. “I was like, ‘Ma’am, I’m literally dying here. Can we hurry this up?’ ”
They returned home where Farrand, who’d just become a licensed minster through the Internet, performed a marriage ceremony.
“It was a horribly sad day,” Farrand said. “She could barely shuffle from the couch to the dining room table to sign the papers. A neighbor was there in her jammy pants to act as a witness. Chris’ mom was there with cake, trying to keep the mood happy, but she started crying.”
That was also the day Henderson started an 11th-hour experimental regimen. The drug had shown nascent effectiveness against her kind of cancer cells. Meck, who had scoured the Internet looking for one more last-ditch answer, said, “Basically, against her kind of cancer, the drug acts like a catalyst. It makes the rest of the chemo work better.”
Within 10 days, they noticed results. Within three weeks, 60 percent of the cancer had recoiled.
“It’s not gone,” Henderson said. “But it’s in retreat.”
In April, for the first time in more than seven months, she returned to a stage to perform live music when Tiny Horse, her acoustic duet with Meck, performed at RecordBar.
The cancer has paralyzed one of her vocal chords, so her voice will never be the siren it used to be — “I used to nail notes to the walls,” she said. “I can’t do that anymore.” But she has adjusted, writing songs that accommodate the differences.
“I had to find a different path,” she said. “It’s like a guitar player who loses fingers: You can still play, you just have to figure out how to do it differently.”
Friday night, as part of the fifth annual Apocalypse Meow, Tiny Horse will perform at the Midwestern Musical Co., 1830 Locust St. Thanks to that resolve, music is one more thing cancer has not taken from her.
“I can’t stop,” she said. “I still write these songs. Even though it’s totally different. It’s the thing I do. I have to do it.”