Rob Cimmarusti calls it a "malady" - a gentle label for the cancer he's been told will kill him in the next few months.
But that term is a fair reflection of the attitude the longtime Quad Cities musician, producer, and sound engineer has about the adenocarcinoma that began in his pancreas and has since popped up in the fatty tissue near his abdominal wall. He received his initial cancer diagnosis on February 1 (his 53rd birthday) and has been through chemotherapy, radiation treatments, and surgeries. In an interview last week, he compared the present state of his tumors to a "shotgun blast"; there are too many of them to target with additional surgery or radiation, and because they're in tissues that get relatively little blood, they don't respond well to chemo.
Cimmarusti conceded that his situation is "not good, not hopeful." A few months ago, he said, a doctor in Iowa City told him: "Get your affairs in order. It's going to be a matter of months." His response was to fight: "We're like, 'Well, we're not going to take that.'"
He is now getting regular treatment from the Cancer Treatment Centers of America (CTCA) in Zion, Illinois. "CTCA took a way different approach than Iowa City. Iowa City said, 'You have a matter of months,'" he said. "CTCA is like, 'No one knows. We don't know when it's going to be. You could go on for another three, four years. ... Your time might be short. Or we might beat this thing into remission. We don't know what's going to happen.'"
So the doctors at CTCA aren't sugar-coating his prognosis, but Cimmarusti is drawing hope from case histories in which patients lived years rather than months. "I'm going to go with that," he said.
While he has health insurance, it doesn't pay the full cost of his treatments, he said, and "there's all sorts of hidden expenses ... when you get sick that you just don't think about." By setting up payment plans, he said, he and his wife of 28 years, Sue Marker, have "been able to keep up" financially.
There's little indication in his voice that he is seriously ill. He's cheerful and said he works when he can around his every-other-week visits to CTCA. And if he's well enough, he's expecting to attend and sing three songs at a January 11 fundraiser in his honor at RIBCO, an event that will feature the reunions of Tripmaster Monkey and Einstein's Sister along with sets by The Dawn and Three Years Hollow.
"I'm not planning too far ahead," Cimmarusti said. "I know it sounds a little short-sighted, but when faced with this kind of malady ... it's best just to take it day by day. ... I'm hoping for the best and hoping I don't backslide too much between now and the 11th. That's the spot on my horizon right now. I'm shooting for the 11th, and that's it. Then after that ... there are no other benchmarks ... ."
The benefit was planned by Sean Ryan (of The Dawn and Jim the Mule) and Kerry Tucker (of Einstein's Sister). "He's helped so many people around here," Ryan said of Cimmarusti. The idea was to gather some of the bands the sound engineer has worked with through the years at his Real Trax recording studio, and Ryan and Tucker decided to try to recruit Tripmaster Monkey - which had a pair of major-label albums in the mid-1990s on which Cimmarusti worked.
While three-quarters of Tripmaster Monkey played RIBCO's 30th-anniversary bash in 2009, singer Chris Bernat guessed in an interview that the full lineup hadn't performed together since 2001. "I immediately said I would do it," Bernat said last week. While he and drummer Marty Reyhons still live in the Quad Cities, bassist Wes Haas and guitarist Jamie Toal live on the West Coast. "I knew it would be difficult to get the other two" back to the Quad Cities, he said, but "I think everybody's love for Rob really made it happen."
Bernat said the band originally worked with Cimmarusti in 1988 on its first demos. The engineer also recorded Tripmaster Monkey's second and third sets of demos and went on tour with the quartet. "He's an electronic and technical genius," Bernat said. "He can fix anything electric or mechanical, including our van. Guitar pedals, anything that would break down on the road."
Cimmarusti's relationship with Einstein's Sister is similarly deep. Tucker said he recorded the band's first demos, and with the exception of a few songs, "he's been a part of the band's entire catalog." He added that it's been eight or nine years since Einstein's Sister played a set of its own songs, which it will do at RIBCO.
Bernat said that as an engineer and producer, Cimmarusti has "a great ear. He can really determine whether you're on key, whether the tempo is fluctuating." He is particularly good at finding places to insert harmonies, and "he was always willing to experiment, too."
"He's got a ton of experience," Ryan said. "Singing is the biggest thing." He said he first recorded with Cimmarusti six years ago, and "the biggest difference between him and other engineers you go to is we've become such good friends."
If he's able, during The Dawn's set Cimmarusti will sing three songs that have meant a lot to him: Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Long as I Can See the Light," Michael Martin Murphey's "Wildfire," and Martin Sexton's "Candy." He also said he's requested that Tripmaster Monkey play "Shutter's Closed" from 1994's Goodbye Race.
That Cimmarusti might be able to attend the January 11 event is a stroke - or several strokes - of luck; the discovery of his cancer was facilitated by coincidence. Blood in his urine - which is not a symptom of pancreatic cancer - at his annual prostate exam prompted a CT scan. Even though the order for that scan didn't include it, dye was used, and it was only because of that dye that the tumor in his pancreas was discovered. Without those two things - and "it doesn't stop there," Cimmarusti said of his relative good fortune - "I would not have lived as long as I have already."
But his current treatments, he said, remain "kind of like a shot in the dark. That's the impression I'm getting." Still, Cimmarusti shows no signs of giving up hope: "I consider it very interesting and quite the adventure ... . Where some folks decide that it's over and succumb to it, no, I'm going to carry on. It ain't over 'til it's over."
The benefit concert for Rob Cimmarusti will be held on Friday, January 11, at RIBCO (1811 Second Avenue in Rock Island; RIBCO.com). The lineup includes Tripmaster Monkey, Einstein's Sister, The Dawn, and Three Years Hollow, and the event will also feature raffles and a silent auction. Admission to the 8 p.m. show is a $7 donation.