Anyone who has come home at the end of a tough day and relaxed to the sounds of a favorite song or artist knows that music is transformative, powerful. However, for Rob Rufus and his twin, Nat—principals of the punk rock group Blacklist Royals—music has also been the natural response to a life-altering event that haunted both brothers for several years: Rob’s diagnosis of life-threatening cancer as a teenager.

“I first thought something was wrong when I was 17,” Rob recalls. “It started with serious shortness of breath, and that continued until one night I threw up all over myself during a concert my high school band was playing. My doctor was on sabbatical, so every time I went to the doctor’s office, I saw someone different. What they saw was this punk rock-looking kid who one time was complaining about shortness of breath and another time had a cough or pain in the neck. But there was no injury—symptoms, but no cause. It went on for four months.”

Eventually, an X-ray for pneumonia revealed a large tumor in Rob’s chest. His diagnosis was Stage IV germ cell cancer, and treatment quickly followed, starting with chemo and radiation and ending with the removal of his entire right lung. His breathing capacity was 38 percent after surgery and treatment, possibly the least ideal physical condition for a drummer, says Rob. Yet despite the limitations, he was determined to remain in the band.

band2“The Blacklist Royals have been together for seven years, and Nat and I have played together ever since we were 13,” Rob says. “Throughout everything, we just focused on the band. We both write music, and we came together for Die Young with Me,” Rob says, referencing their 2014 album, which captured a great deal of attention and was described by some reviewers as ragged and raw. “After we did, we realized that we both had written songs centered around the time I was sick.”

Leather-clad, tattooed and gritty, Rob and Nat are unlikely spokespersons on the subject of cancer and pain, but after the twins unintentionally documented the experience in songs, Rob decided to make the most of his onstage role to increase awareness by telling his story to an atypical audience.

“When I was sick, Nat and I stayed focused on the band, and it was a way to ignore the reality of the situation,”Rob says. “When we were younger, whenever there was something we wanted to do, our mantra was ‘Screw it and let’s do it.’ So after this happened, that’s the attitude we had. We toured constantly for five years, in a different place with different people every day. We never talked about cancer.”

Rob says that despite ignoring it, his illness was always “an underlying thing.” After the release of Die Young with Me, the twins realized they were moving into new territory.

“I have chronic back pain and nerve damage in my hands and feet, and I always get a lot of sideways looks from people,” says Rob. “I try to stay on top of my physical health—I just tour and suffer through it. But one of the reasons I wanted to talk about this is because no one expects to see a young, in-shape, tattoo-covered guy in a pain clinic.

“People don’t know what they don’t know,” he says. “If I am lying in a parking lot outside of a club because of my back pain, I tell people, ‘Just give me a minute.’ But people are really not empathetic. I think only people who have been through something horrible can understand how bad pain can be. That’s why I’m doing this; there isn’t a lot of understanding about kids who live with pain every day.” {PP}