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'Power of music': Legendary Vancouver drummer on his battle with cancer and what keeps him going

Now in his 70's, the drummer is using music to make a change.
Rock and roll drummer Rocket Norton from the Vancouver band 'Rocket Norton Band' shares his journey with cancer. He's holding another benefit concert later in 2023 to raise money for children's cancer research.

Vancouver's Rocket Norton has had an incredible life. 

Vancouverites may recognize the tune "Summer in the City," which topped the charts in the summer of 1977. The hit was recorded in Vancouver by Norton and his band, Rocket Norton Band.

Norton's rock and roll roots go back decades; he joined his first band as a student at Sir Winston Churchill Secondary School in the mid-60s, which essentially morphed into the Rocket Norton Band a few years later. 

Even at 70 years old, Norton continues to drum two hours each day and works out in the gym twice a day, running up hills, and abstaining from smoking and drinking alcohol. 

Rocket Norton's life changed 'overnight'

On Feb. 11, 2021, he was diagnosed with rectal cancer. 

The drummer's life changed "overnight," he tells V.I.A. "I went from being the healthiest person you could run into, to then I was immediately in the hospital."

Norton's first surgery took place two days after his diagnosis, which was then followed by radiation treatment and a second surgery. 

Over the span of just three and a half months, Norton says he dropped 70 pounds, primarily because he was unable to eat.  "And I couldn't do any exercise. I couldn't do drum practice. I couldn't do anything," he shares. 

Then, he started chemotherapy. 

"Chemo ruined my taste buds," he says. "The best possible food you can imagine just tasted like crap." 

The chemotherapy went until near the end of 2021, after which the drummer began to recover and eat again. 

'Even though the doctor's telling me I'm dying, I feel great'

Nearly five months later, Norton's oncologist told him that his cancer had metastasized and moved into his lungs, making it inoperable.

"There's no cure," Norton heard on Apr. 13, 2022. He was told he had six months to live. So he went back to chemotherapy.

"I felt that the chemo was almost worse than cancer," the drummer admits. He began looking for alternatives to chemotherapy and found the BC Cancer Personalized OncoGenomics (POG) Program.

He started the program and made a comeback to exercising and daily drum practice. His weight climbed back up to around 174 pounds and he tells V.I.A. that "even though the doctor's telling me I'm dying, I feel great."

'I may be a rock and roll drummer, but I'm a pensioner too'

The only downside was that the program was not covered by any level of government or insurance, according to Norton, as the the treatment is still considered experimental. As a result, the cost is "out of reach" for him. 

"I may be a rock and roll drummer, but I'm a pensioner too," Norton says. 

The initial treatment, which Norton received in mid-January, costs $15,500, while subsequent treatments, which Norton has to get every three weeks, cost $11,500 each. 

A friend started a fundraiser for the drummer in hopes that the community could chip in the help Norton with this treatment. So far they have raised nearly $15,000 out of a $100,000 goal.

'We have to kill cancer before it kills us'

Last October, Norton put together his first benefit concert called, appropriately, "Fuck Cancer."

"I rallied the troops; I brought a whole bunch of my rock star friends together and we put on a concert," he recalls. "We raised $322,090.50 and every penny of that went to the BC Cancer Foundation and was targeted at [helping develop] this POG program."

The concert proceeds, however, are not for Norton's personal POG program treatments, which is what his fundraiser is for. 

The "Fuck Cancer" benefit concert was put together entirely by volunteers. Last year's show saw 33 musicians from nine of the biggest bands that came out of Canada and Vancouver, and everybody played for free, says Norton.

The drummer adds that some artists even made donations in addition to performing. 

The name is a battle cry, explains Norton. "A person that has cancer or a person who knows someone who has cancer understands what that means, and you can't say it any better," he says. 

The drummer will be putting together a second benefit concert called "Fuck Cancer 2" sometime in the fall, with all the money raised going towards children's cancer.  The goal is to raise a half-million dollars at the fall 2023 event; further details will likely be announced in August. 

'This thing might keep me alive'

The benefit concert has not only aided cancer research and programs but has helped Norton heal himself too. 

In the months leading up to the first "Fuck Cancer" concert, Norton was drumming and going to the gym regularly to be strong enough to perform. 

A local drum shop on Commercial Drive even gave Norton a studio and a set of drums to practice, which he did every day. 

Two days after the first benefit concert, he went in for a CT scan and was amazed to find his tumours were shrinking. "All I can say is it was the power of music," Norton marvels. 

"It's kind of ironic," the rock and roll drummer adds about his love for drumming and music. "In the end, this thing might keep me alive."