Living with cancer threat, singer moves forward

GREENVILLE – “There’s some evil thing under your bed… wants to grab you every day,” said Jeff Madewell. “You can’t let that paralyze you; you get out of bed on a different side each day.”

This is how the professional musician who, along with his partner Erin Higgins, recently played for Greenville Library’s August First Friday event views his medical challenges. He knows his cancer is simply on a back burner despite being “clear” for four years. “It’s a good sign if I hit the five year mark,” he said. “So far so good.”

Madewell, who can count 45 radiation treatments plus two major surgeries as part of his past, has been blind since 1985. When he was originally diagnosed his vision was 20-20; within 10 days he was legally blind. “I have about 3 percent vision, blurry and mostly peripheral out of my left eye.”

“A lot of people don’t know that,” he said. “They say they wave… why didn’t I wave back?” He attributes a “terrific” team for making his performances possible. Higgins or a team member helps set everything up; he makes sound adjustments by ear. “I memorize the base point; then I can adjust it by feel.”

Both Higgins and Madewell are from West Milton although they didn’t know each other growing up. Higgins is 14 years younger than Madewell. “There’s this little restaurant I’d go to,” he said, “and I kept hearing about this young girl. In 2005 she came to one of my shows; we were introduced and she asked me to play a song or two on a demo she was doing.”

He called her later and asked if she’d be interested in doing an “acoustic thing” on the side. She liked the idea. “We did our first show in December 2006… out of that show we ended up being booked for the next three to four months.”

Much of the Higgins-Madewell performance includes original music, but there’s John Denver, Johnny Cash and others mixed in for variety. A fan could close his eyes and visualize Johnny Cash on a couple of the numbers. “A lot of people have told me that,” he said. “Mom had Folsom Prison Blues… I’d sit by that record player (I was three) and listen to it over and over. I’d beat the heck out of a metal cookie tin.” He got his first real drums at 11 or 12 and his brother’s guitar when he was 13. All three of his brothers are musically inclined.

Madewell’s first professional performance was with a group in Urbana when he was 17. “I thought I’d hit the big time,” he said, adding they are still friends today. Then in January 1985 he was diagnosed with Hodgkins Disease. Since then he’s also dealt with two different kinds of skin cancer and two different kinds of lymphoma. “They were non-aggressive to start, but became aggressive,” requiring a stem cell transplant at the Cleveland Clinic in 2010.

“Erin has been terrific from the beginning,” he said. “She’s compassionate and understanding. When I got really sick she took part time jobs to help get through it. She was steadfast through all of that.” He added he “could not sit down and design a better partner and friend.”

Madewell added he wouldn’t be doing this without his team, which includes some with local ties: Barb Henderson Eikenberry, Mark Middlecoff and Mike Babb.

Madewell, an adopted member of the Lakota Tribe, has started a project for the Rosebud Reservation, a tribe with high poverty levels. It’s called Christmas for Rosebud. “The first year we delivered seven pallets of food and toys,” he said. “This year a full semi-truck load was delivered.”

Jeff Madewell, blind since 1985, performs recently at the Greenville Public Library with his partner Erin Higgins.

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