Survival song: How Ministry of Love’s Meg Vitale battled cancer to sing again

Veteran local band Ministry of Love with lead singer Meg Vitale, center. Last year Vitale was diagnosed with stage 3 cancer that threatened to rob her voice and end her life.
Photo: Christopher DeVargas

It’s approaching midnight backstage at the House of Blues, and moments before Ministry of Love is set to take the stage, guitarist Ryan McCulloch turns and wretches into a trash can in a fit of nerves.

About 200 people—friends, family, fellow Las Vegas bands and, as confirmed by shrieks of “I love you!” from the crowd, the teens who make up much of Ministry of Love’s fanbase—await them on the floor, some already clutching brand-new copies of the band’s debut album A Promise for Forever, purchased from the shiny stacks on the merch table outside.

This August 2012 show is the first time the high-octane pop-rock quintet has had a record to sell at its shows, and after four years spent strictly touring, the album, released through indie label Negative Progression, marks a crucial turning point. With a professional recording, a label’s blessing and six tours under its belt, the band is finally primed to make the push to get signed to a major label.

“Welcome to the show!” lead singer Meg Vitale yelps into the mic, clapping along to the drumbeat. The stage lights rise, and McCulloch, just in time, leaps out from behind the stage and tears into the guitar line of the first song, “Easy.”

Over the course of the set, stage rigging gets climbed, instruments get thrown and fans jump onstage for impromptu sing-alongs. Vitale stalks the stage in a sequined miniskirt and black boots, dark hair in her face as she howls and pounds her chest with the urgency of a doomsday preacher. Her pin-up good looks adorned with piercings and tattoos—she bears a full-sleeve homage to the Las Vegas Strip on her left arm—make it easy to see why the doe-eyed singer has received her fair share of marriage proposals from young punks at shows. Tonight, Vitale leaves the stage feeling like she’s given her best performance ever. She also knows it might be her last.

A week and a half earlier, Vitale lay on a table at UCLA Medical Center, bracing herself as a biopsy needle pierced her neck yet again.

Clink, clink, clink.

Her stomach turned at the uncanny sound of the needle scraping against her lymph node. Instead of piercing the delicate tissue with ease, the tool jabbed against the gland in vain, the chalkboard scratch reverberating into her teeth and the pit of her stomach.

Her lymph node, as she’d soon find out, had been calcified by Stage 3 papillary carcinoma, a thyroid cancer that in recent months had scattered a dozen small, hard tumors throughout her neck like buckshot.

After surgery for cancer, Vitale had to retrain herself to sing.

Three months earlier, Vitale had awakened to a lump in her neck the size of a golf ball. An otherwise healthy 28-year-old with no family history of cancer, she had ignored the signs of the disease that manifested over the past year: The weight gain and fatigue she attributed to the band’s hard-partying touring lifestyle; the sensitivity to cold she wrote off to growing up in the desert heat; the hair loss she blamed on stress from work and relationship problems.

“I’d blame it on anything, because I hated going to the doctor,” she says. “Whatever excuse there was, I’d make it.”

By the time Vitale received her diagnosis in July, she was close to inoperable. Even with the surgery, there was no way of knowing whether the cancer could be completely eradicated, or if it might spread further. “I just kept thinking, ‘Thank God I have health insurance,’” she says, having purchased a plan after the band crashed its van on tour.

In addition to removing her thyroid, surgery would require navigating the minefield of tumors surrounding her right lymph node. The largest of them, at 6.2 centimeters in diameter, grew alongside nerves controlling brain function. Another rested perilously on her carotid artery. The slightest nick during surgery, and she’d bleed out on the operating table. But it was the tumors on her trachea and vocal nerves that terrified her the most.

When Vitale met with her surgeon to discuss the seven-hour surgery, he didn’t mince words. “I remember him telling me, ‘If I hit that nerve, your vocal chords are just done. They’re never going to work again. I hate to make it sound so dark, but you may never talk or sing again,’” Vitale recalls. “Then my mom turned to me and said ‘Well, at least you’re a great writer.’" Though her mother was only trying to comfort her, Vitale “flipped out and started crying and started screaming at them to get out. That was the first time that I really broke down.”

Having grown up singing in community choirs and at state fairs, Vitale's voice was her identity. Following in the footsteps of her grandfather, a singer, and uncle, a lifelong Vegas lounge musicians, Vitale was a soloist in her Summerlin Catholic church choir by age 7, eventually going on to study music and vocal performance at prestigious performing arts magnet Las Vegas Academy, where her love for musical theater gave rise to Broadway ambitions.

During her senior year, difficulties with her mother and a string of stepfathers made it impossible for her to keep living at home; she packed her belongings and secretly began living out of her station wagon, occasionally crashing on friends’ couches when their parents weren't home. It was during one such stint that a friend overheard her singing a song by female-fronted ska band Save Ferris and encouraged her to audition for local bands.

She took the advice. Within six months Vitale had saved up for an apartment and was deep in the burgeoning punk and screamo scene surrounding the Huntridge Theatre, the now-defunct Downtown venue that served as an oasis for left-of-the-dial music and the outcasts and misfits that accompany it. Fronting local bands—pop-punk group This Bitter End, then the darker Silhouetta—gave Vitale a sense of purpose and an outlet amid the chaos. “When I’m playing music, nothing matters,” she says. “There’s no job I have to be at or rent I have to pay or people I have to worry about. It’s an escape. It’s addicting. I don’t think I can be truly happy without it.”

She spent the next few years in and out of the scene before fellow “Huntridge kid” and local show promoter Patrick “Pulsar” Trout asked her to audition for his band, Ministry of Love, in 2008. She agreed, but only on the condition that her best friend, Devyn “Devo Fresh” Pristow, a waggish, magenta-haired guitar fiend, could try out too.

Ministry of Love had featured a revolving door of musicians since Trout founded the group in 2006, but couldn’t seem to find a lineup that would stick. When the two women auditioned, he knew this time was different.

“Meg sang a Billie Holiday song a capella in front of me and I was like, ‘Yup!’” Trout recalls. “And when Dev came over, she just started shredding over our songs. I felt like I had won the lottery two days in a row.”

By early 2010, the band settled into its current rock-pop-punk incarnation featuring McCulloch on guitar and Matticus Pope, the group’s former merch guy, on drums.

With the advantage of Trout’s booking and promotion expertise, the band toured aggressively, eschewing today’s more common practice of shelling out for studio time and a manager in favor of the more old-school, DIY method of making a name for itself on the road.

“It’s hard to be a Vegas band, because there are so few all-ages venues and our music attracts a lot of younger fans,” Pristow explains of their decision to tour heavily. “There’s too much to do here. Every single night there are different shows and bands to choose from all across the city. How do you compete with that?”

The choice paid off. By 2011, they were seasoned road warriors having toured six times through 44 states. They had played Warped Tour and LA’s famed Viper Room. Fans began to ask about a record.

The band scraped together their savings and recorded A Promise For Forever at One Light Media during one sleepless week and sent the EP to Negative Progression owner Seth Hyman. Within a week, they had landed a promotion and distribution deal.

“That was just an amazing feeling, to know that we were finally going to have a real record, that you can buy in a store,” Vitale recalls. “I think we all knew that this was going to be the record that gets us signed [to a major label] and takes us to that next level.”

While awaiting the album’s formal release in August, the band busied itself playing more shows, including a main-stage set at Extreme Thing, and preparing for the big promotional tour that would follow. A music video for the record’s title track landed Ministry of Love in magazines like Alternative Press and drew comparisons to Vitale’s pop-punk heroes, Paramore.

“After everything I’d been through and all the different bands, it was like, We’re doing this. This is really happening.” Vitale says. Six months later, she was diagnosed with cancer.

The rest of the band was in as much disbelief at the diagnosis as Vitale, if not more. “When I heard Meg had cancer, it was almost like someone told me ‘Meg got a bad haircut,’” McCulloch says. “I couldn’t wrap my head around it. It was like, oh, man, that really, really sucks, but you know after a while everything will be okay. But we didn’t know that.”

For Pristow, who has been playing in bands with Vitale since the two met at an audition 11 years ago, the severity of the situation didn’t hit home until Vitale Skyped her from the hospital. “She had all these tubes coming out everywhere, and her hair was a mess. That’s when it really hit me. Like, this isn’t just gonna be a few stitches.”

Ministry of love is prepping for a four-week tour in July, their first in years.

Vitale spent the two months before surgery vacillating between blissful denial and a forced acceptance of mortality at age 28. She hid the severity of the tumors and risks of the surgery from all but those closest to her, making cancer jokes to get a rise out of friends during somber moments. “That’s part of how I get through hard times,” she says. “I’m really sarcastic and funny and I try to make light of it.”

Inside, however, she struggled with anger and helplessness. “For a moment I got so discouraged, because it was like the universe constantly takes me to where I want to be, and then takes it all away … Like, I finally got here, and now this. Now I’m gonna die [or] lose my voice.”

Just before Vitale’s surgery, Ministry of Love recorded two songs, “Bus Pass” and “Better Sorry Than Safe” for, as she puts it, “just in case.”

“Between those songs and the CD release show, I kind of got out everything I wanted to get out,” Vitale says. “It sucks to say this, because it sounds so dark, but I [got to a place] where if I died, I’d be okay with that.”

While prepping for surgery in a cold procedural room at UCLA Medical Center on October 9, Vitale drew on her past to stay afloat. “My life has been filled with disappointment. I wouldn’t trade any of it, because it’s made me who I am for sure,” she says.

As they wheeled her into the OR, Vitale repeated a pep-talk mantra in her head: If you think that way, then this will be the end. Stay positive. You’re gonna beat this, you’re gonna be back on tour again, you’re gonna be fine. So it’s a setback. So you’re old. It’s okay. You still look good. You can still do this.

She closed her eyes and counted back from 100.

Back in Las Vegas, the band adjusted to the sudden pause as best it could. Trout threw himself into booking and promoting. The others got full-time jobs. Pristow and McCulloch quit smoking, in solidarity with Vitale, who stopped cold turkey after smoking nearly a pack a day. And they never stopped rehearsing.

“The idea of replacing Meg never even occurred to us,” Trout says. “If Meg had ended up being unable to continue performing with us, Ministry of Love would have been done.

“We've gone through things that would break up most bands,” he explains, citing van wrecks, nights in jail and band members leaving mid-tour, to name a few. “This whole time we have kept fighting, clawing, kicking and screaming our way to where we are because we want this more than anything.”

Several hours after surgery, Vitale jolted awake in a fit of nausea. Too weak to remove her oxygen mask, she shouted her first words loud and clear. “Help! Help! Oh my God, I can talk! Help! I can talk!”

After a week in the hospital, Vitale returned to Las Vegas for a grueling three-month healing process. In addition to extreme fatigue and rapid weight gain—despite a doctor-mandated diet of little more than salad greens—Vitale also had to cope with nerve damage in her back after the surgery.

“I didn’t even want to leave my house,” she says. “All I wanted to do was sleep. I was miserable. ... I would not wish that on my worst enemy.”

Still, Vitale forced herself to go to work at Sally Beauty Supply every day and started showing up to band practice a month after the surgery, despite barely being able to sing above a whisper—and her doctor’s warnings not to strain the stitches lining the inside of her neck.

After a pummeling round of radioactive iodine treatment, Vitale was declared cancer free on December 19.

It’s been three years now since the band has toured—a long time for a group that has never quite made it. In a way, it’s like starting over.

Sipping a beer on the patio of the home that serves as the band’s rehearsal space, Vitale watches like a proud mother as the band rehearses a new song. The onslaught of layered guitar work shakes the walls with a sound more akin to Guns N’ Roses than the power-chord hooks of their past, a shift the band members attribute to developing their individual styles in Vitale’s absence. Physically, she’s still not quite able to keep up, but she has no quarrels resting while they play. She says it wouldn’t have been like that a year ago.

“It used to be that all I cared about was partying and becoming the next Paramore,” she says. “I was worried I would end up a nobody unless we got signed to a major label. Now I know I’m never going to be a nobody, and I don’t need to be on Capitol Records to know that. I don’t care about getting famous or partying anymore. As long as I can keep making music in any way, that’s all I care about now.”

That’s not to say a record deal wouldn’t be welcome, but the band is focused on its four-week tour in July. The challenge at this point, they say, is reminding fans that they’re still here. “We’re kind of back to zero,” McCulloch says, “But zero can be a good thing.”

The surgery has forced Vitale to retrain herself to sing, pushing what started as a whisper through crippled tendons in her neck until it emerged a full-thoated vibrato. As the band runs through “A Promise for Forever,” she holds a hand to her neck as she belts the high notes. They all agree, she sounds better for it.

Vitale clears her throat and starts again. “It’s funny how once you stop pushing so hard, everything falls into place.”

Follow Andrea Domanick on Twitter at @AndreaDomanick and fan her on Facebook at Facebook.com/AndreaDomanick.

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