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Quiet Riot’s Frankie Banali opens up about stage 4 pancreatic cancer diagnosis: ‘I was going to potentially die in mid-October’

Lyndsey Parker
·Editor in Chief, Yahoo Music
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When Quiet Riot’s Frankie Banali announced last month that he is battling stage 4 pancreatic cancer — a diagnosis he actually received back in April — it was a major blow to the rock world. Suddenly it made sense why the 67-year-old drummer, who hadn’t missed a gig in 38 years, had sat out Quiet Riot’s summer tour. But shortly after his announcement, Banali returned to his drum kit for a triumphant comeback show at Hollywood’s Whisky a Go Go, and he’s fighting his disease with the same sort of power with which he hits the skins.

Pancreatic cancer is one of the deadliest forms of the cancer, with a five-year survival rate of only nine percent. Banali, in fact, was initially told that he would be dead by mid-October of this year. But his health has taken an unexpected (some doctors might even say downright miraculous) turn for the better, and he even has several concert tour dates lined up in the coming months. He is also joining forces with Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PanCAN) to make the best use of his time and platform. Even though Banali’s own father died of pancreatic cancer many years ago, Banali himself was blindsided by his recent diagnosis, so he knows it’s important to educate the public about what signs to watch out for and what screening and treatment options are available.

Yahoo Entertainment recently sat down with Banali for an inspiring Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month conversation about his illness, his ongoing treatment (seven rounds of chemotherapy so far), and his unflappably positive attitude in the face of grave adversity.

Yahoo Entertainment: Let’s start by talking about the work you're doing with the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network.

Frankie Banali: Well, obviously before I was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer – which had spread to my liver — I wasn't aware at all of PanCAN. My wife, who is my biggest supporter and is the one that manages all of my medication and makes sure I don't forget medical appointments and things like that, she started researching and she found the PanCAN organization. And it's been a real gift, and especially the Know Your Tumor program. It immediately educated us as to what to look for, the proper biopsy tests done, what would be the suggested best treatment program for it, what kind of chemo you were going to have, et cetera. So that was a huge step for both of us. I mean, my father died of pancreatic cancer in 1974, and my mother died of lung cancer in 1990. But it's not until it happens to you that you actually have to really be proactive and do the research.

Given your family history of cancer, especially with your father, was this something that was always a fear of yours in the back of your mind?

Yeah, understanding that that my father died from pancreatic cancer and my mother died from lung cancer, and she wasn't even a smoker — for my entire adult life, I always felt like I was in the crosshairs, dodging that bullet. And on April 17 of this year, that bullet hit home.

How did you find out you had cancer?

It was completely and totally by accident. I've learned from the PanCAN organization that over 57,000 persons a year are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, but it has no symptoms. And that’s one of the reasons it's such a dangerous and difficult cancer to treat, is because by the time you find out you have pancreatic cancer, it's already gone past stage 1, 2, 3, and 4 — and there is no stage 5. In my case what happened is, I started getting severe pains in my right calf. And then the following morning, I was very weak and I walked about 10 steps and I was out of breath. My wife convinced me to go to the emergency room. They did an ultrasound of my right calf, and then they did a scan of my upper body, and what they found out initially was that I had a blood clot in my right calf, one in my left lung, one of my right lung, and one in the saddle in between the two lungs. And they wanted to immediately put me on blood thinners, because if those dislodged, it could be a serious health issue, because it generally goes either straight to the brain or straight to the heart.

But quite by accident, when they did the scans, they caught a little bit of my liver and then saw that something was not right. So now it's 3:30 in the morning, and they wheeled me back from emergency for another scan. They did the lower scan, and that's when they found out what the problem was. And the blood clots are a symptom or indicative of having this type of cancer. So shortly after that, the floor doctor unceremoniously comes in and tells me that I have stage 4 pancreatic cancer, that is has metastasized to the liver, and that he “really liked my music.” And he signed off on the paperwork and walked out.

What was going through your mind in that moment?

My first thoughts really weren't, "Oh my God, you have what's considered a terminal cancer." My first thought is, "How do I tell my wife?" Because I sent her home at 1 in the morning, saying, "Please go home and get some rest." So at 5:30 in the morning, when they checked me into a room in the cancer ward, I called her up and gave her the news. I said, "If you're not sitting down, you might want to sit down." I think she was in a little bit of shock, but at the same time she's incredibly intelligent, so immediately she went to that place of, “OK, what can we do about this? How can we fix this?”

So, you were diagnosed in April 2019, but didn't go public with the news until October. Why did you keep it secret for so long?

Well, after worrying about my wife, my next concern was — because not only am I the drummer in Quiet Riot, but I've been managing the band since '93 — we had a number of dates contracted on the books. My next thought was, "Let me see how many dates I can do." I was able to do a date that we were scheduled for in late April in Florida, and then another festival date in May, but then after that, it just became impossible for me to travel for a number of reasons — one of them being that now I was having to inject myself in the stomach every single day with blood thinners. Between that and the medication and the prospect of starting to have chemotherapy, it just became too much. So my thought was, "How do I keep my guys working?” Because they all have bills, they all have families. So I worked out a plan that kept the band working all through the summer festival period. … There were some concert promoters that I did have to talk off the ledge, though.

I'm sure a lot of fans were asking where you were. It must have been hard to keep quiet.

Well, the difficult part for me was having to the fact that for 38 years, I was very proud of the fact that I had never missed any show whatsoever that I was scheduled to play. So, that was a bitter pill to swallow. … As far as the fans were concerned, I didn't make any kind of statement, because once you make one statement, it opens it up to the form of questions, and I wanted to make sure that my guys were able to work through the touring cycle for 2019. So I didn't go public, and I took all the hits — all the mean and nasty posts. You know: “Frankie Banali is sitting at home getting fat, while the band is playing without him.” And the reality was that on April 17, I weighed a hefty 197 pounds, and three months later I was down to 135 pounds. So I certainly wasn't sitting at home having a great time! But I just didn't say anything. And I took all the abuse.

Eventually you did rejoin the band onstage, though. And the outpouring of support was great to see. I’m sure all those haters and trolls feel pretty bad now.

Yeah, finally, I was able to do the headlining date at the Whisky, which we sold out. It was great to have PanCAN there to document that. But even before we did that date, since it went public on the Monday before that Saturday, the amount of emails and posts on social media and text messages was incredible. I didn't expect it to be that amazing show of love and support for me. I'm getting text messages from two of Miles Davis's drummers, and I'm a huge Miles Davis fan, so that really floored me. And I even got a message from the drummer that played with Johnny Winter in the ‘70s, and I had actually seen him play in '72.

But overall, it's just all the fans, all the people that have supported the band for three and a half decades-plus, that are the ones that are the most meaningful for me. Because those were the people that have stuck with me and with Quiet Riot. And I did receive some text messages and some private messages of people that are in a similar situation, and my mission — besides making sure that I'm around as long as I possibly can, and then do whatever I can to keep myself going — has now become to point them in the right direction.

Tell me about the concert that you played at the Whisky. Must have been a very emotional night for you. What was going through your mind? And did you have any physical difficulties getting through it, after being away from the kit for so long?

As soon as I sat down behind the kit, I was at 100 percent power — no mistakes, no errors, no missing any parts or anything like that. I was just looking at my three guys in front of me, and every once in a while, I'd play something and they’d turn around, and there'd be big smiles all around. That was just reassuring that I'm on the right path, as much as I can be within the situation that I find myself in. So it was great. The place was sold-out, and the amount of love and support was across the board. Every single person there was there to support me personally, because now the cancer cat was literally out of the bag. So it was a wonderful experience, and when we finished playing I made a point of going out to the front of the stage as I always do, to shake as many hands as I possibly could. And people were telling me that either they had cancer, or they had a loved one that had cancer and they beat it — and that I can beat it too. That was amazing. And then seeing all my friends after we played upstairs… the amount of hugs and tears and it was overwhelming, in a really positive way.

I know Quiet Riot just released their 14th studio album, Hollywood Cowboys. Do you have any plans perform or tour with the band in the near future? Is your stamina up to doing that?

I'm actually playing in St. Louis at the end of this month, then I'm going to Tokyo on the 30th to play with a Japanese artist, Mr. Jimmy, over there. And that's a three-hour, nonstop show. Then I come back [to the States] and play in Mount Pleasant, Mich., with the band. So I have every intention to continue moving forward. I've been off chemo now for about six weeks. When I got down to 135 pounds after chemo number seven, my oncologist said that I was too weak to go to the next round. So I've taken a break from chemo, and I went from 135 to, as of today, 163 pounds, and I feel great. Inevitably, I know I'm going to have to go back on chemo, because though I am gaining strength and gaining weight, I also know we're not treating the cancer. But we've got a plan where I'm going to do the chemo and then account for the recovery time for the side effects, and still be able to continue with Quiet Riot, both for the end of this year and into 2020. I've already accepted a number of dates for next year.

I know touring is grueling even for someone in optimal health. Are there any doctors advising you to take it easy? I imagine there might be some people that were thinking you shouldn't be doing three-hour shows or touring at all.

Well, it's a multi-sided situation. I think that probably any oncologist would want you to stay at home as much as possible. But in my situation, I spoke with my regular doctor a few days ago. She called up here to check in on me, because she saw me right after my first chemo, and that prognosis at the time was that I was going to potentially die in mid-October. And at that point in time, I looked like it. And she just called a few days ago, because she had been going over all my medical reports and test results, and she says that the advancements that I've made are nothing short of a miracle.

So when I say it's a multi-sided situation, it’s that I'm a very positive person. And I preach that in a situation like this, you have to be a positive person. It's OK to go to the dark places every once in a while — which I do, because it's only natural. But it's more important to be able to pull yourself out of those and stay positive. And for my entire life, ever since I was 14 years old, music has been the focus of my life, along with my family. And I think it keeps me positive. So, I think that as long as I take my medications and supplements on schedule, and as long as we can control the chemotherapy and do it in a manner where I can do both — the treatments and play with the band — I think it's a plus. Right now, I'm living six months at a time. So I'm making the most of every minute I possibly can.

How do you keep such a positive outlook? Because as you say, it is all too easy to go to dark places. But as I talk to you, you don't sound scared. You sound quite matter-of-fact, and you sound upbeat.

Well, that's just the way I am. My entire life has been a seesaw of great accomplishments and great tragedies, and I've not let that get to me. My father says that there were only two options in life: to do everything you possibly can, or do nothing at all. And “nothing at all” was not an option. And that always stuck with me. I was 22 years old when my father died of pancreatic cancer, and I left school to take care of him and my mom, and I just kept moving forward. And then my mom passed away on my birthday, in 1990. And unlike some people who would say, "Oh my God, that is horrible," I chose not to look at that way. I chose to look at it as if she hung in there: After eight years of fighting cancer, she hung in there long enough to see my birthday. And that's just the way I am.

You’re not frightened or worried at all?

Well, I do think that the thing I think I will miss the most when my time comes, is going to be my wife and my family. I'm going to miss great food. I'm going to miss listening to music every day. But that's just inevitable. I know that cancer, and especially pancreatic cancer, is not something that you can cure. I know that pancreatic cancer is going to be the death of me. The question is going to be when. And I'm not going to waste my time feeling sorry for myself or moping around, because you gain nothing from that, and you gain everything from moving forward.

See, I've already been diagnosed with this particularly horrible cancer. And I've accepted the diagnosis. I have not accepted the fact that I'm going to die at any moment now. So what's important for me now is to get the word out that people need to be aware. They need to be responsible, they need to be checked out, and if you have a history of cancer in your family, it's especially important to be proactive and insist that you get a scan. I think it's very important to be aware of the PanCAN website, because they're an incredible source of information. So, it's very important to be educated, but it's also very important to have a positive attitude. Because a positive attitude will carry you even on your worst days.

Well, congratulations on how well you are doing, and thank you so much for being involved with this cause.

Thank you so much, and let's make a date. You call me a year from now, and I'll tell you how I'm doing. How's that?

Sounds great. I’m putting it in my calendar now.

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