Abigail Henderson feels best when she's onstage.
The drummer pounds away behind her, the bass player rides the roots and the fifths in a country-rock lope.
Her man stands stage-right, tall and blue-eyed, twisting licks on his guitar like he's squeezing limes over a drink.
The tuning pedal and the set list are at her feet. The guitar neck is in her left hand, the pick in her right.
She starts to sing. She feels nothing.
Weekends are hardest for this 31-year-old, so having a gig works out well. She usually gets the chemo treatment on Thursdays, and the god-awful poison hangover kicks in Saturday evening. It's the perfect time to play with her band, the Gaslights, and to forget about the cancer in her body.
Cancer smashed up her life in midsummer.
It came in the house on July 22 at 11:45 a.m., she wrote on the blog she started five days after being diagnosed with stage III inflammatory breast cancer. It crashed through the door and freaked out the cats, set the dog barking, and pissed off my husband. It promptly thrashed the living room, broke all the glass, blew out the light bulbs. It changed every word in every book on every bookcase. It made the TV speak a new language. It shredded every bit of clothing I own. It emptied the contents of the refrigerator, kicked the butter and the milk and the salad mix to all corners of the kitchen. And then it sat down squarely on the couch and said I had to live with it now.
Henderson called her blog "Hope Is My Middle Name."
One of the more outspoken people on the music scene, Henderson is a former creative-writing major who, in her own words, "minored in feminazi." She worked in the Women's Center at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, protesting Promise Keepers and bringing in leftist scholars such as Angela Davis.
She also attended Naropa University, the Buddhism-informed Colorado school that's famous for its Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. She lasted only a year, though. "I realized I am a little bit too Western of mind to give myself freely to the Zen concept," she says. "I drank a lot, I swore a lot, I argued a lot."
Her blog is meditative, feisty and poignant — not like the breast-cancer literature one might find at the local Barnes & Noble, which Henderson describes as "chick lit."
In addition to providing a good read, her blog serves as a way for Henderson's friends and family to keep up with her.
Stage III inflammatory breast cancer is rare and aggressive. It spreads quickly to other parts of the body. It is not heralded by the telltale lump but rather by swelling, warmth, redness, with the skin sometimes looking like an orange peel. IBC accounts for only 1 percent to 5 percent of breast-cancer cases, and the survival rate is significantly lower than with regular breast cancer.
It fucks shit up.
But as far as Henderson and her friends are concerned, it is not going to stop the rock.
It's a rainy night in September, and The Gaslights are presiding over a packed house at the Crossroads Music Fest. Of the dozens of people crammed into the Brick, several — most of them women — have come with their heads shaved in support of Henderson.
Wearing an all-black get-up adorned with an Obama pin and armed with a sunburst Les Paul guitar, Henderson leads the Gaslights through a rowdy set of rock-flavored country songs about politics, love and the bottle. Some of the tunes are brand-new and unrecorded, some are off the four-year-old band's fourth and latest album, 16 Addresses.