‘There’s been a lot of support’: Sammy Hagar drummer David Lauser on his wife’s brave cancer fight

David Lauser’s partnership with Sammy Hagar stretches back to his pre-Van Halen solo albums. He also helped Lauser find his wife Liza, who was managing Hagar’s web site. Now, as Liza struggles with inoperable brain cancer, Hagar is gathering members of Chickenfoot, Night Ranger and Mr. Big for a sold-out February benefit concert to help defray mounting expenses.

That’s testament to what the drummer has meant to Hagar, beginning with 1981′s Standing Hampton, which featured a co-written track called “Sweet Hitchhiker.” Lauser also played on Three Lock Box, VOA, and I Never Said Goodbye through 1987. After Hagar’s stint with Van Halen, Lauser then created the nucleus for the Wabos, who have worked with Hagar ever since. Hagar and the band shared credit on four albums between 1999 and 2006 before Hagar founded Chickenfoot, and they remain his principal solo touring group.

But Lauser’s most recent shows with Hagar, in support of his “40 Years of Rock” tour, were played with a heavy heart. The discovery of Liza Cozad-Lauser’s tumor, walnut sized at its center but with tentacles woven around her brain stem, led them to four different radiologists. The Lausers were told that irradiating that area of the brain would damage healthy tissue around it — perhaps causing blindness, loss of smell, deafness. Those treatments do not represent a cure, either, as doctors said most tumors later return.

Worse, the tumor itself can not be removed. Those stricken with tumors in the periphery of their brains are good candidates for surgery. Brain stem tumors, however, are generally inoperable because of their positioning where the spine connects to the skull. There would simply be too much collateral damage to other needed brain functions.

That led the Lausers to antineoplaston therapy. They had, quite serendipitously, earlier seen a documentary on this experimental option, which helped some similarly ill patients. Unfortunately, by the time Liza was diagnosed, the ANP project had already been halted after two rounds of government-approved testing. David is now furiously lobbying for an exemption, in the hopes that this therapy might benefit Liza. The chances of it working have been placed at only 30 percent. But that’s 30 percentage points more than Lauser feels they have right now.

“Our mission today, because we know what we are up against, is to get her that ANP,” Lauser tells us in an exclusive SER Sitdown. “I have great respect for doctors, and the AMA and people who have dedicated their lives to helping people, but when it comes to certain areas, you have to be your own advocate.”

Meanwhile, Liza is losing her ability to walk and talk, Lauser says. They have downsized into a condo, even as fundraisers were launched in their honor — including Hagar’s benefit show next month. Lauser talked to us about this pitched battle for Liza’s life — and how members of the couple’s extended musical family have helped along the way …

NICK DERISO: What was it like getting back on the road, knowing what your wife is going through?
DAVID LAUSER: I’m off the road now, but when I was — we didn’t have an extensive tour this year, but from August into November, I was gone a lot. The whole month of October, she was here alone, except for five days. When this first happened and I knew I was going to go on the road, honestly, I was a little freaked out. Emotionally, I didn’t know what I would be like. I went to rehearsal, back in April, for some Cinco de Mayo shows, and I thought: I can’t pretend like this isn’t happening. But do I want to lay all of this on my band, at the same time? Before I went into rehearsal, I made a point to call everybody — Sammy, Vic [Johnson, the guitarist] and Mona [the Wabos' bassist] — and a few close management friends in the band. I wanted to lay the groundwork, because I didn’t know how it would be.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Sammy Hagar joined with Neal Schon, Joe Satriani and Steve Smith to pay tribute to his early mentor Ronnie Montrose, after the guitarist's tragic suicide.]

NICK DERISO: At that point, you were probably still trying to sort out just how accurate her diagnosis was. That couldn’t have been easy.
DAVID LAUSER: I was pretty in touch with my emotions. It was a crying fest with me and my wife, in April, May and June. Every other day, we’d get more news, we’d see more doctors. We were on a quest, getting second, third and fourth opinions. It was like a roller coaster. One week, a doctor would say something like: “We’re not sure this is a brain tumor; it may be something else.” And we were like: “All right! We’ll take MS.” Then the MRI would confirm that, yes, it was a brain tumor. So, it was up and down. I had this fear of having an emotional breakdown. I’ve never been in a situation like this. I didn’t know if I was going to be on stage, in front of 10,000 people, and start crying. I knew I could play; I wasn’t going to lose my mind. But I thought: “Maybe I will just wear sunglasses, and if I’m playing a certain song that reminds me of my wife and I cry, who cares? No one will know.”

NICK DERISO: The Wabos must have become an extended support system for you. Those bonds go back a long way.
DAVID LAUSER: Oddly enough, by me telling the band and getting it off my chest, every one was in shock but I was able to really focus on the music. I don’t want to say it was an escape, but it was a respite from all of the stress and fear and pain of what my wife was going through. I’ve actually had people come up to me and say: “Wow, you’re playing better than ever.” I think it’s because I was so in the moment, so present. I really did feel like I did play well.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Touring drummer Kenny Aronoff talks about performing with Chickenfoot, as well as career stops with John Mellencamp and John Fogerty.]

NICK DERISO: And yet, I imagine the fear of the unknown was never far away.
DAVID LAUSER: My wife was really supportive, but our biggest fear was that we didn’t know what to expect. The doctors said anything could happen, at any time. She could go into a coma. She could have a stroke. She could just — die. She said: “You’ve got to make money; you’ve got to play. I know you love playing. I know that’s your life. I don’t interfere with that.” So, we had a care-giving situation set up. This was how heavy it was, though. She said: “Promise me I’m not going to die with you being away.” So, I promised her: If I have to fly home overnight and be there in a hospital with you, I will do whatever I can. That was the concern for her to all of a sudden be in a situation where she was going to go leave this world, and me not be around. I wanted to be there to say goodbye.

NICK DERISO: I wondered if the documentary on Stanislaw Burzynski’s experimental therapy — which you first saw long before Liza was diagnosed — gave you some sense of immediate hope.
DAVID LAUSER: That’s a great question. I suddenly realized: “Oh, my God. This movie I saw, I’m now one of the characters.” It filled me with hope, though. I watched this almost two years ago — because the last name of this doctor is the same as the best man in our wedding. I don’t know a whole lot of Burzynskis. The reason I play music is because Jamie Burzynski played guitar, and we started a band when we were 15 years old. All this time later, my wife has the same tumor that I’ve seen in this documentary. I called up the clinic, and they brought us in for a consultation. But the trials were put on hold. He was in Phase 3 clinical trials, allowing people like Liza to get this ANP drug. Well, they stopped it. That leaves us hoping for something called a compassionate use, or single-patient, protocol. That’s what we’re trying to get. What that means is, if a drug isn’t on the market yet, and you’re in a life-or-death situation and no other thing will help you — which it won’t — the government allows you to get access to something that may save your life. It’s not a guarantee. He’s not saying he has a cure. But guess what? Standard medicine doesn’t either, not for the kind of tumor that Liza has.

[SOMETHING ELSE! FEATURED ARTIST: We're running with David Lee Roth and Sammy Hagar, spinning old Van Halen favorites including "Ice Cream Man" and "Good Enough."]

NICK DERISO: You’ve been in constant contact with the FDA on this issue. What are they telling you?
DAVID LAUSER: They say: “We’re sorry, we know your wife is in a dire situation. Let us get back to you.” And then, a week goes by. Then I talk to them again and say: “My wife is crying every night. She’s slurring her speech. She can barely walk. It’s going to get to the point where she may need a breathing apparatus. Can we kind of speed things up a little bit?” They’re saying this guy hasn’t given us the proper data. Now, all of the people who were in those trials before they stopped it, they’re allowed to have the drug. Their lives are potentially being saved. But my wife missed the boat? So, we’re continuing to fight. There’s been a lot of support for us, from the band and from people I’ve never expected. It boosts my faith in humanity. Sometimes, with the way the world is, you think it’s dog eat dog. Then something happens, and you start seeing the love that people have. It’s getting us through.

    

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has also explored music for publications like USA Today, Gannett News Service, All About Jazz and Popdose for nearly 30 years. Honored as newspaper columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section that was named Top 10 in the nation by the AP in 2006. Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.