Joe Shanahan pauses to compose himself before recounting the moment two years ago when he realized he could no longer shrug off his persistent hacking cough and generally rundown state. En route with daughter Tara to New York to catch the Arctic Monkeys at Madison Square Garden, he found blood on a tissue he’d coughed into as the plane approached JFK.
A check-up confirmed his worst fear: Tongue cancer. Stage IV. “Everything stopped,” he recalled.
It was hard. Stopping, even slowing down, is anathema to Shanahan. Fueled by a DIY ethos shared with the bands he hosts, old-fashioned drive, and a pure passion for music, he has built the North Side Chicago venue Metro up from scrappy upstart into iconic institution. Since its opening in 1982, Metro has offered a proving ground for the likes of R.E.M., launch-pad for, among others, local indie-rockers Smashing Pumpkins and, in its equally legendary basement annex Smart Bar, a showcase for the turntable wizardry of late pioneering house music DJ Frankie Knuckles.
Along the way it has acquired a reputation as a musicians’ venue; the kind of place where, during an intimate, acoustic set, the bartenders stop ringing up customers’ drinks to create a reverential hush. A fixture at most shows—Shanahan, kibitzing with the bands before they go on or, seated at the bar, the biggest fan in the house.
After he’d got his wind back, his response to the diagnosis was characteristic: Could treatment be fitted around his hectic schedule of talent-scouting trips?
“The doctors laughed. ‘You need to start tomorrow,’ they said.”
Knowing their patient though they recommended he first seek a second opinion to satisfy himself he’d be getting the best care. Putting feelers out through his network, Shanahan found his way to renowned chef-restaurateur Grant Achatz, co-owner of Michelin three-star restaurant Alinea, who in 2007 beat a cancer similar to Joe’s thanks to the University of Chicago Medicine.
Achatz made himself available for an ask-me-anything session.
“He’s one of the busiest people on the planet, but he called personally and gave me ninety minutes. He said, ‘ask me all the scary questions Joe, I’ll tell you everything.’”
Shanahan arranged to speak with radiation oncologist Daniel J. Haraf, MD, and surgeon Elizabeth Blair, MD—who with oncologist Everett E Vokes, MD, treated Achatz—plus oncologist Victoria M. Villaflor, MD, and nurse Nicole Hannigan at UChicago.
“I knew in our first meeting I’d found my team,” said Shanahan. “I felt cared for.”
At the heart of Shanahan’s care was super-intensive, tightly targeted radiation combined with chemotherapy—a specialized approach pioneered over decades for head and neck cancers by Vokes, Haraf, Blair, and Villaflor, and available at only a handful of centers. Globally, the incidence of these cancers is on the rise, driven by the human papillomavirus (HPV). Many of those affected are in their 40s or 50s or younger, placing a premium on effective care to eradicate the cancer while minimizing long-term ill effects. The UChicago team has led research into the efficacy of the regimen and its success in lowering toxicity—key to post-treatment health. They are also committed to constantly refining it to further improve outcomes, and Shanahan benefited from a new iteration in which therapy is administered with even greater precision to minimize damage to healthy tissue.
Time was of the essence, so treatment commenced right away with a salvo of chemo under the care of Villaflor that shrank the tumor. This allowed Haraf to home in on a smaller area with radiation to rout the cancer cells.
Shanahan was a model patient throughout the 16-week course of chemo and radiation. “They gave me my orders and I was the best soldier I could be,” he said.
“Joe followed through on everything and chose never to let things get him down,” said Villaflor.
He had a strong support system at his side: Tara, 20, son Michael, 17, and wife Jenny.
“Jenny was integral to my decision to seek treatment at the University of Chicago,” said Shanahan. “We both felt there was a team approach to my care.”
“She also read all the books she could lay her hands on and formulated a nutritional plan to support my health as a cancer patient. She’d bring homemade broth and smoothies to the hospital.”
And his extended family at Metro rallied around their ailing boss. “They put everything on hold for a year. ‘No raises, don’t even worry about it,’ they told me. ‘You get healthy.’”
Shanahan brought the party spirit with him to the University’s Center for Care and Discovery where he received his treatment. “I had my iPad and a stereo attachment to play music, and people would stop by to dance. We kept the Smart Bar vibe moving and grooving.”
On the drive home, another touchstone to his life in music: Tara blasted Frankie Knuckles to keep his spirits up.
Still, the sessions were punishing.
“Oh man, it was hard. I’m from tough stock—South Side Irish—but this was brutal.”
For a while, Shanahan subsisted off scrambled eggs and butter-slathered pancakes—the only things he could choke down. “Trying to eat was like swallowing glass.”
But he was determined to hang tough.
Spurning a wheelchair, he resolved to make it to appointments on foot regardless of how long it took.
And he prided himself on not missing a week from work, always making it in at least a couple of days no matter how beat-up he felt.
Truth be told, he found it hard to stay away. “I missed my staff and wanted to be with them.”
While late-night concerts were out, he sat in on artists’ sound checks—ensconced in the sound booth, wearing a mask to ward off infection and swathed in scarves to keep the chills at bay. Old friends, Pearl Jam front man Eddie Vedder, singer-songwriter Glen Hansard, post-punk legends Echo & the Bunnymen, Afghan Whigs lead singer Greg Dulli, and indie pop outfit Fitz and the Tantrums treated him to extended sets.
“I was there to work. And I got my two-hour fix of live music.”
Shanahan completed radiation in July 2014. In late September, Blair removed the lymph nodes implicated in the cancer just to be on the safe side. Eight months after diagnosis, he was cancer-free.
Today, Shanahan has been free and clear for 16 months and counting. His prognosis is good.
“I learned a lot about what the world is really about,” he reflected. “The love that came back to me was humbling; like I saw my own wake. I’m so grateful. Vicky, Elizabeth, Daniel, and Nicole will always be part of my life.”
His thoughts have also turned to the research that made his treatment possible, its importance in saving others and ultimately banishing cancer altogether, and how he might support this work.
“I feel strongly about giving back to research because it holds the key to progress in this fight.”
In January, out of an event tinged with sadness, he saw an opportunity to contribute while honoring a personal hero. In his genre-defying music and fusion of music with art, David Bowie was a potent inspiration for Metro. Bowie’s death, following his own battle with cancer, struck a poignant chord with Shanahan, and planted an idea—a celebration of Bowie’s music, a portion of the proceeds from which would go toward research by the University of Chicago Medicine Comprehensive Cancer Center.
On March 4, Sons of the Silent Age, an homage to Bowie started by Chris Connelly, formerly of industrial bands Ministry and Revolting Cocks, and ex-Smashing Pumpkins drummer Matt Walker who now plays with Morrissey, will take the Metro stage to reprise songs from Bowie’s 1976 Isolar Tour, including his album from that year, Station to Station. Also present will be former Bowie back-up vocalist Ava Cherry.
There are Bowie tribute acts and there is Sons of the Silent Age, said Shanahan. “You close your eyes and think it’s him. Chris Connelly has it dialed in and not in a hokey way.”
It promises to be a life-affirming night for a life-affirming cause.
“Cancer research saved me and others. We must find more money for it,” said Shanahan. “Now I’m healthy, this is the least I can do.”