Valley rock maven Stephanie Muscat pounds away on her drums in an Ahwatukee Foothills nightspot then cuts into the soaring vocals of “Sweet Child o’ Mine” as the dance floor fills.
The former Susan B. Komen Race for the Cure honorary chairperson tosses her long brown hair aside and revels in the fact that she is rocking and singing in all three of her popular bands — Rock Lobster, Shirley’s Temple, and The Purely Simple. However, the sweetest revelry is that she’s still alive.
“The one thing that I didn’t have was the feeling that this is the end,” said the mother of two.
For two years, Muscat faced a harrowing, highly public battle with breast cancer, a battle she documented on her blog CaringBridge and waged on the stage. Muscat discovered a lump in her left breast in December 2008 and scheduled a mammogram, then later a biopsy. She was picking up her children from school in February 2009 when her doctor phoned and asked Muscat to visit the office where she would deliver the news. Though Muscat did not carry the gene, she was diagnosed with the most common form of breast cancer, estrogen-based invasive ductal carcinoma (IDC), shortly after her 40th birthday.
“This is why I didn’t want to turn 40,” said Muscat, who explained she was never worried about reaching any other age. But there was something about 40.
Unable to tell her husband at first, Muscat called her mother, Diane Casey, who rushed from her Ahwatukee Foothills house to her daughter’s side. The two spoke for hours, sometimes sitting in silence in Muscat’s Chandler home.
“You don’t know anything,” Muscat said. “All this unknown emotion hits you hard.”
The cancer treatment was not any easier to bear. Though Muscat’s doctor was able to remove the cancerous tissue from her left breast without the need for a mastectomy, the cancer had already spread to the lymph nodes underneath her left arm. The lymph nodes were removed, a procedure that triggered lymphedema, filling Muscat’s left arm with fluid. The prescribed treatment was regular gentle massages to drain the buildup. After her initial hardship, Muscat’s true trial began with chemotherapy that started in March and ended in August 2009.
Two hollow, flexible needles were inserted into Muscat, the first in her chest and the second in her jugular. The second needle would then be threaded through her blood vessels to the heart, at which point the treatment would begin. Medical professionals would administer, in Muscat’s words, “a corrosive liquid” to combat the cancerous cells within, hoping that they would die before she did. The chemical flowed slowly because, as Muscat noted, “putting it into a person’s system too quickly could easily lead to breathing complications,” with a patient rushed off on a stretcher. It was a sight Muscat often witnessed when she arrived for treatment. With two needles in her heart and the imagery of complications in her mind, Muscat would endure this process four to six hours every three weeks.
Though the procedure was carefully planned, doctors were uncertain how she would react to the treatment. In the weeks to come, Muscat would face additional ailments as she struggled to combat her cancer. Hair was an early casualty while the remaining stubble felt like a thousand needles pressing into her sensitive scalp. Muscat ultimately resorted to shaving her head to lessen the pain.
Her one relief from the stress was her music.
“I hated not playing. It’s been my life and livelihood,” she said.
Rock Lobster lead guitarist Dallan Baumgarten has known Muscat for 13 years and has played in three bands with her, along with performing in the national touring band Berlin of Top Gun fame. He says when a fellow band member gets sick the entire band suffers with them.
“She stayed in the bands through most of her battle and just toughed it out, even when she lost her hair. She went on stage every day she possibly could. I think it was therapeutic for her. Music is her passion, and she was able to cling to that. How many people get to live their passion? That kept her strong, kept her fighting.”
Two months of radiation followed six months of chemo.
“Still, performing sucked,” said the veteran drummer and vocalist. “The awkwardness felt like I was playing naked. I’m not one of those people who go ‘Oh, look at me and what I went through,’ but people wind up treating you like that anyway.”
Muscat worked hard to cope with her new normal. Her next surprise was the bloating and deformed toenails that remain black to this day and grow up instead of out.
She relied on her husband, Phil, and her mother for support but “my children were my motivation. My darkest moment was the thought that I might not be there for my kids,” she said. Muscat’s 9-year-old son Payton still fears losing his mother. Her daughter Shay is 7 years old.
Scottsdale yoga instructor Kevin Ross has been a fan for a decade, following Muscat from Martini Ranch in Scottsdale where she has been a headliner for 14 years to Fibber McGee’s in Chandler and west to CK’s in Ahwatukee Foothills.
“It was tough seeing her going through her struggles, but in the end she turned out to be a huge inspiration for everyone. Watching her go from hair, to wig, and back to her real hair again all while hardly ever missing a beat was incredible.”
However, invisible scars do linger. Sometimes post-traumatic stress rears its head and affects her thinking. A blog entry from November 30, 2011 reads “I’ve been single handedly trying to rearrange my entire psyche in this past year BECAUSE I want to live my remaining days happy, healthy, with faith and TRUTH… It has been some of the hardest stuff I’ve ever dealt with. It could be that when you are forced to stand at the edge of your life and take a look that maybe you see things could and/or should be different. SO: you make the changes, no matter how difficult.”
During her treatment and recovery, Muscat also focused her energy on helping others as the honorary chairperson for the 2009 Susan G. Komen Phoenix Race for the Cure. “The high point was getting to sing the national anthem at the start of the event,” said the survivor.
“I actually once thought about working for the Komen Foundation, but they changed many of the staff members and board members, and it became different. I ended my association with them in 2010. I do more work now with the American Cancer Society,” she said.
Tempe construction manager Lois Lawrence, who has enjoyed Muscat’s performances at Fibber McGee’s in Chandler, along with CK’s and the former A-Town in Ahwatukee, is one of many fans touched by Muscat’s struggle.
“Stephanie’s battle resonates with all her female fans,” Lawrence said. “Her strength and character through her ordeal rings out from the stage.”
Ahwatukee Foothills is special to Muscat, a place where “people have always been kind to me and my bandmates,” she said.
“My mother lives in Ahwatukee, so I have a great affinity for the area,” Muscat explained. “We started playing there more than a decade ago, starting at a Mexican restaurant that used to be where the Melting Pot is now (Fry’s strip mall at 39th Street and Chandler Boulevard.) That was a blast. Then Tijuana Country Club (TCC), a nightclub in that same mall, hired us. That became a Valleywide hot spot for nearly five years. People would come from all over the county to hear us play. I hope to keep playing in Ahwatukee for another decade.”
Muscat, 43, continues to monitor her health with regular blood tests and screenings. She won’t be “cured” until she lives five years cancer free.
Guitarist Baumgarten remains in awe of his longtime friend and bandmate.
“Stephanie has been a huge inspiration to all of us in the entire Arizona music industry. And that goes for before, during, and to this day.”
Cody Matera is a student at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University.