“We have to laugh about it, because you can’t write the script in our family. Me and Jules have laughed away for 20 years of living with cancer. And you have to laugh, because it’s so black.”
So says Mike Peters, frontman for Welsh post-punk band the Alarm, known for strident anthems like “The Stand,” “68 Guns,” and “Strength.” But Peters had no idea when he released that latter song, in 1985, how much meaning it would have in his life as a three-time cancer survivor and husband of a recent breast cancer survivor.
“There’s been a lot of fun times here: non-Hodgkin lymphoma, leukemia, breast cancer,” says Mike’s wife, Jules, with a wry laugh, speaking out during Breast Cancer Awareness Month. “I did think I was going to dodge the bullet of cancer. I thought being married to someone for 32 years — 20 of those with Mike having leukemia — I just assumed it wouldn’t happen to me.”
Mike and Jules’s cancer story is definitely stranger than fiction, but it has inspired several compelling documentaries — including Mike Peters on the Road to Recovery, The Man in the Camo Jacket, Mike and Jules: While We Still Have Time, The Song That Changed My Life, and Jules Peters: My Cancer Journey. The two met in 1986 in the small town of Rhyl, Wales (where they still live with their two sons), and Mike proposed just one week later. (“Much to my mother’s absolute horror,” Jules laughs.) Then, in 1995, Mike was diagnosed with lymph cancer, with doctors telling him they had “only a half-chance of keeping [him] alive.”
Mike decided to reject treatment and go on tour anyway.
“Someone put the kettle on, because we were British, so let’s have a cup of tea at these terrible moments,” Mike, 59, chuckles as he recalls his seemingly damning diagnosis. “I saw my brother on the phone and I said, ‘Who are you calling?’ He said, ‘I’m gonna cancel the gig.’ And I said, ‘No, I can’t sit here and just think and worry about what’s coming my way tomorrow. Let’s occupy my time. Let’s go and do the gig. Let’s carry on as normal.’”
It seemed like a bad omen when, on the morning he boarded the plane to America, he saw passengers reading newspapers reporting that British singer Marti Caine had just died from the same sort of lymphatic cancer that he had. But still, he carried on. “I can vividly remember singing the strong ‘Strength’ that night,” he says, “and it took on a whole new meaning for me.”
Few people knew about Mike’s illness. (“I didn’t even tell my mum, because I thought if my mum finds out I’ve turned down the treatment she’ll kill me — and my mum is a much bigger foe in life than cancer, I can tell you that,” Mike says) But one person who knew, the Alarm’s former manager and U2′s booking agent, Ian Wilson, put the singer in touch with a faith healer named Bambi. “I was not too impressed at the time,” quips Jules.
However, Bambi’s encouragement, along with a book about self-healing that Wilson gave Mike, somehow helped put Mike on the road to recovery — and he went in spontaneous remission. His doctors were baffled.
“My blood count totally reversed and I saw it as an absolute miracle, and the doctors were obsessed with finding the science [behind it],” Mike marvels. He believes that the touring itself was the real miracle-worker. “Music, right there, is a healer,” he attests. “I turned [touring] into a psychological combat zone. I got off the plane, I went to buy combat fatigues, and I thought, ‘None of this is coming off until I’m cured.’”
Ten years later, Mike was diagnosed with leukemia and underwent treatment, but he still went on the road. “He was flying to America at this time, doing this crazy residential tour. He’s very exciting to be married to, but sometimes it’s just like, ‘You’ve just been diagnosed with cancer. Can’t you just stay home and just get on with the chemotherapy?’” says Jules. “Mike was astonishingly positive — almost annoyingly positive.”
But then, in June 2016, the couple’s roles reversed and Mike became the caregiver, when Jules, now 51, was diagnosed with breast cancer. The outdoorsy, physically active couple were mountain-climbing during Snowdon Rocks — an annual trek to the highest peak in Wales — and making a documentary about Mike’s survival story, when Jules noticed the lump.
“Jules was pretty much diagnosed on camera. We were not expecting it. We were making a documentary. It was following my life, the life of our charity [Love Hope Strength],” says Mike.
“It was all about Mike, and then I hijacked it!” Jules quips.
“I think the fact that Jules allowed the story to be showed in real time — most people are talking about cancer after the fact, whereas Jules’s documentary, you saw it in the moment. And they followed the whole journey.”
“I’m very good at getting my tits out!” jokes Jules.
Despite the Peters’ unflappable sense of humor, Jules confesses she was “absolutely devastated” by her diagnosis — as was Mike, who says, “I thought I was the one that was carrying that [cancer] burden for the family. And then to see Jules diagnosed as well, I look back on it now and I thought I was being really strong for my partner, really strong for my wife and the family, but then I look back on the film and I look like I’m about to collapse. I look terrified.”
“Having to sort of watch me and be my partner for a change, caring for me, was a big shock for [Mike],” says Jules, who underwent urgent and aggressive treatment (when it turned out she actually had three tumors and the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes) — including two operations, months of chemotherapy and radiotherapy, and reconstructive breast surgery. “I was stripped of my femininity and my sexuality, lost my hair,” she says. But Jules, who is now in remission, always allowed the “non-sugarcoated version” of her story to be told, even bravely showing her mastectomy scars and severe radiation burns for the camera.
“Mike is obviously a strong and positive person, and I love him for that. But I did make it very clear at the beginning of my journey, ‘I’m not going to ring Bambi up, no disrespect,’” Jules says drily. “And not be gung-ho and so positive all the time. I said, ‘I’m warning you, any of this ‘It’s going to be fine, babe, it’s going to be great, babe,’ and we’ll end up divorcing. I don’t want you to be so f***ing positive all the time!’”
However, many positive things have come out of the Peters’ grueling experience. Their Love Hope Strength Foundation (established with American leukemia survivor James Chippendale), which finds bone marrow donor matches for patients in need, has registered more than 180,000 potential donors and found 4,000 life-saving matches. Jules’s cancer story has also inspired songs on the Alarm’s new album Equals, much of written in the hospital.
“I wrote lots of lyrics. When I couldn’t see Jules when she was in the operating theater, I’d be pacing the corridors and I’d think, ‘I’ve got to write this down, what I’m feeling.’ And I wrote these long sets of words,” Mike reveals. “And then when we’d come through the worst of it and Jules would say to me, ‘What were you doing while I was in surgery for 10 hours?’ I said, ‘I wrote all this down’ — about how I felt about the kids or Jules or this life. ‘There could be an album in that lot.’”
One Equals track, “Beautiful,” addresses Jules’s difficulties coming to terms with the changes to her body, hair, and overall appearance during cancer treatment. “It says, ‘Everything is beautiful tonight on the inside.’ But it also says, ‘On the outside,’ as well,” says Mike. “We were going through these tough situations — Jules having to put a wig on. You’re going out with your friends, and deep inside you’re hurting or you’re unsure, but you put on a brave face.”
The couple’s brave saga and music have now inspired thousands of people waging their own cancer battles. “I’ve seen some incredible people stand up to the disease and make the most of it, even if they’ve got a short window of time left,” says Mike. “They’ve made the most of it and shown how precious life can be.”
“We both feel very strongly about trying to help people at that moment when they’re diagnosed,” explains Jules. “We understand, because we were just kids when we first experienced [Mike’s] cancer diagnosis. I know when Mike was diagnosed, all I wanted was to reach out and find a little positive story out there that said, ‘Hey, I was diagnosed with leukemia 20 years ago and here I am, still living my life. It’s not an easy road, but here is some hope.’ And so I always hoped there’d be somebody out there right now getting diagnosed with leukemia or breast cancer and hopefully they can read our stories. And we can be honest with them. …I wouldn’t pull any punches, because it can be really, really tough. But we can prove that you can live a great life.
“We’re a bit like a Disney movie,” Jules continues. “I think [cancer has] made life even sweeter. I’m not saying I’m glad that I’ve had cancer. It’s been a grueling journey. … But we really do live life to the full every single day. We are just grateful every single morning. Let’s try and embrace [cancer], and not see it as our enemy. It’s part of our life, so let’s try to make something good out of it.”
“Yeah, it’s been a hell of a journey, but we’re still here,” add Mike. “I’m thankful for that.”
Audio of this conversation is available on demand via the SiriusXM app, on Volume channel 106.
This article originally ran on Yahoo Music.