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New values: Kevin Hearn, keyboardist for Barenaked Ladies, says cancer changed outlook

By ERNEST A. JASMIN, Tacoma Tribune, October 16th 2000.

Barenaked Ladies member Kevin Hearn isn't one to endorse "Barenaked in America," the new film detailing the pop-rock quintet's 1998 tour.

In fact, Hearn — who will join his bandmates in a Saturday night concert at KeyArena — can't stand watching the movie. Though it also depicts the phenomenal success of the album "Stunt" and the group's carefree exploits on the road, Hearn sees it as a miserable reminder of how close he came to dying of cancer.

"It's very hard for me to watch the movie because it shows me during the worst time in my life," said the soft-spoken keyboard player, calling from a Houston tour stop. "I did all my interviews on a day pass from the hospital. I probably won't ever watch it again, personally."

He chuckled, finding a bit of sardonic humor in his comments. "How's that for a plug?"

The summer of 1998 was a painfully ironic time for the 31-year-old musician. On the one hand, "Stunt" became the Canadian band's first chart-topping disc. "We were No. 1, which is what guys dream about," he said, "but there I was possibly dying of cancer all at the same time."

There were signs that Hearn wasn't well long before "Stunt" shot up the charts. "I was experiencing increasing amounts of pain while recording 'Stunt,'" he said. "I was denying that there was a serious issue and I was taking a lot of painkillers... But I was sure it was just something that would pass."

Shortly after Barenaked Ladies finished "Stunt," Hearn's bandmates — lead singer Steven Page, bassist Jim Creeggan, guitarist Ed Robertson and drummer Tyler Stewart — decided to take a short vacation to San Francisco. Hearn was too sick to join them; he was losing weight, unable to eat and bled for no discernible reason. So, while his friends visited Alcatraz, Hearn made a somber visit to a Toronto doctor's office.

On June 25, 1998 — just days before the band's most successful album hit stores — he learned he had leukemia. Fortunately, the cancer had been caught early. Hearn began undergoing chemotherapy right away and eventually had a bone marrow transplant.

Hearn described the following months as being the most trying time of his life. Chemotherapy made his skin painfully sensitive and his body was racked with nausea. At one point, he had to be quarantined in a sterilized room because treatments had rendered his immune system nearly powerless against infection.

"I can't begin to explain how horrible it was," he said. "I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy."

The cancer is in remission and Hearn has rejoined his bandmates with a new outlook and a new regimen for staying healthy.

"I have to work hard to feel good, to stay healthy. It's a long recovery from what I went through. It changed me forever," he said. "Life on the road certainly doesn't promote a healthy lifestyle. The bus can be a 7-Eleven on wheels sometimes."

These days, the Barenaked Ladies' bus more closely resembles a health spa than a convenience store. Exercise equipment has been installed, and the band members are much more conscious of what they put in their mouths.

Hearn has to abstain from many of the excesses that often come with being in a rock band.

"I can't really drink. I can't really hang out in bars and party all night... I have to sleep and I have to eat right," he said. "Touring for me is really about playing a good show to the best of my ability and using the gifts I've been given."

But not only has Hearn's brush with death given him a new set of touring rules; it has given him a new way of looking at the life he'd previously taken for granted.

"I suppose I don't have a lot of energy to spend on things that now I see as unimportant, things that are affected by ego. I'm more honest with myself about what's important," he said. "I still feel very lucky and blessed that I can still play."