‘Forwards,’ the new album by Mike Peters and the Alarm, was written while he was hospitalized for treatment of chronic lymphocyte leukemia and pneumonia.
“Forwards” is the album of Mike Peters’ life.
Peters, the singer and guitarist of Welsh rockers The Alarm, gives fans an inside perspective of his cancer journey on the new album. Arriving via The Twenty First Century Recording Company on June 16, Peters wrote his band’s latest LP while hospitalized for leukemia — often using members of his care team as an unofficial sounding board for the new material.
“I think for a lot of them, they didn't know they were new songs, I was just strumming some chords, playing some things,” Peters told CURE®. “And the girls would say, 'Yeah, that's really nice, I'm coming to clean the room again.' Even the medical staff, I'd be playing, I'd put the guitar away when the medical team came in, and nobody said, 'You shouldn't be doing that.' But I would start saying to the doctor, 'Look, I'm a musician, this is my life, I've got to get back to being able to play guitar, and that's why I'm keeping it going.'”
Peters and The Alarm have found a global following over the last 40-plus years thanks to a sound that’s both grounded and anthemic, music that soars and doesn’t pull punches.
“Forwards” is filled with classic Alarm momentum, Peters’ signature propulsion with a purpose. Even the song titles – the title track, “Another Way,” “Transition,” “New Standards” and the hard-hitting single “Next” — seem to will a bright future into existence one composition at a time.
“(The medical staff) kept saying, 'Look Mike, your life's gonna be very different when we get on top of this,' and they wouldn't really say when getting on top of it was or even if getting on top of it was it was a reality,” Peters said.
The songs were Peters’ personal affirmations at a time when, he said, he was receiving few firm answers from his care team.
“People don't like to give out hope to patients, because it can become false hopes, and they don't like to give out ideas of outcomes, because outcomes might not happen, you know,” he said. “And so, there was a lot of reading between the lines, I think, (which) has to go on for patients now.”
One such instance of reading between the lines led Peters to consult, in his words, “Dr. Google,” and suspect that he was being tested for Richter’s Transformation, also known as Richter’s Syndrome, an aggressive lymphoma that’s been shown to develop in as many as one in 10 patients with chronic lymphocyte leukemia (CLL).
“I could tell it was a real concern,” Peters said. “Without it being voiced until they knew for certain, they wouldn't tell me about Richter’s Syndrome, and they wouldn't say it's not. It was just unspoken, but I knew the testing was going on.”
Peters was negative for Richter’s — but that ambiguity, he said, made his treatment situation scary.
“I thought, 'Well, if it becomes that then I might not come out of this place,'” Peters said. “And so that plays on your mind quite a lot. And you try to be positive about it all and suppress those darker thoughts. But they come out in the music, they just do. And I think your optimism comes out stronger than your pessimism, for me it does anyway.”
Peters received a diagnosis of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1995, then chronic lymphocytic leukemia in 2005, which relapsed in 2015.
Peters — who, with The Alarm, has released 23 studio albums, sold more than 5 million albums and charted 17 Top 50 singles in the United Kingdom — has balanced cancer care and his music career for decades, touring and recording regularly both with The Alarm and as a solo artist.
Jules Peters, Mike’s wife and the keyboard player for The Alarm, is a breast cancer survivor who received her diagnosis during the filming of the 2017 BBC documentary “Mike and Jules: We Still Have Time.” A second documentary, “Jules Peters: My Cancer Journey,” followed in 2018.
Mike and Jules have continued to support the cancer community with the Love Hope Strength foundation, which works to expand the marrow registry, and by converting a Welsh chapel into a retreat for those impacted by cancer.
Mike’s leukemia experience continued in the fall of 2022, with a case of post-tour pneumonia.
“As a leukemia survivor with a compromised immune system, my doctors have always warned me about pneumonia,” Peters said. “And they'd always told me off, if they came to a gig and saw me jumping into the audience or something, 'You shouldn't be doing that.' So when I got pneumonia, I was quite shocked, because it was out of the blue. And I was supposed to rest. The doctors told me I had to stop touring and doing all that, and the only cure for it was to rest.”
Peters did what comes naturally to him — he picked up his guitar.
“I thought, ‘That's one thing I can do and rest, I don't think you can tire yourself out playing the guitar necessarily,’” he said. “And so that got me into the habit of playing guitar on a daily basis, more than I've ever done before, really.”
But the pneumonia didn’t clear up, and testing revealed his leukemia “was starting to go in a different direction and rear its (head), start to fight back against me, I stopped being able to ingest the drugs that had been working to a point, I started to reject all those,” he said.
At Jules’ insistence, doctors admitted him to the hospital. What they found was dire.
“My lungs were full of blood,” Peters said. “The leukemia was out of control. And my blood count was going up close 200 on the white count. And so, they said, 'Look, we're gonna have to put you in hospital while we carry out the tests to find what's really going on,’ and they had to sort of treat the pneumonia and the lungs first before they could get to the leukemia.
“And then they said to me, 'Right, you're going to be in here for a few months.' … I had to lie on my side for weeks, because I had a drain coming out of my back. At times I was allowed to sit up — when they took me off the IV I was allowed to sit up — and I thought, 'I wish I could have my guitar.'”
Jules brought his guitar and Mike started playing, quietly at first, but soon his work caught on with his fellow patients and staff during his two-month hospital stay.
“I wasn't dissuaded from playing the guitar, I was encouraged,” he said. “And then, all of a sudden, new songs started to arrive because that's what happens. And I was in this situation where I wasn't sure what was going on. I wasn't sure what was gonna happen next. I wasn't sure if I was going to go to the next world or get to the next chapter in my life.
Peters and The Alarm are returning to the road in support of “Forwards,” with American dates scheduled for the Gramercy Theatre in New York City on June 23 and 24.
Peters said he’s currently feeling great. He’s on a daily dose of Venclexta (veneotoclax), taking Rituxan (rituximab) every two weeks and receiving monthly immunoglobin therapy treatments.
“I've been on an eternal game of ‘Donkey Kong,’ because every time I got to the end of a ladder and just running out of the drugs, I can get to the next one and there's a new one,” Peters said. “Yes, I've been really lucky, whereas a lot of people I've been treated with haven't been so lucky. I mean, I It's funny, I'm on (Rituxan) now. But seven, eight years ago I rejected (Rituxan), my body wouldn't accept it anymore and had to go on to different ways of treatment. And now I'm back on it with this (Venclexta) it's allowed me to receive, (Rituxan). So, you know, I've got the best of treatment keeping me alive.”
In this episode of the “Cancer Horizons” podcast, Peters tells CURE® about his cancer journey, the creation of “Forwards” and returning to the North Wales Cancer Centre, the hospital where he was treated to film the music video for “Next.”
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