If life were a boxing ring, local musician Terrin Durfey would be a scrappy flyweight in one corner, staring down a merciless heavyweight in the other. In this case, the underdog Durfey's opponent is cancer, and their mismatched fight has been carrying on for a good decade. And while most of this story was written before the recent news that doctors had suspended chemotherapy on Durfey's Stage IV cancer (the most severe) and that bringing in hospice care has been considered, a wise man once said that a fighter is only as good as his last punch, and whatever happens, it's clear that Durfey will continue to swing.
Durfey, who fronted beloved San Diego indie-rock bands Boilermaker and Jade Shader and more recently played in Pinback's touring band, was first diagnosed with cancer in 1998, when he was only 24 years old. A biopsy of a dark mole on his back turned out to be melanoma, and cancer was found in his lymph nodes and breast area. After several rounds of surgery and chemo, Durfey and his medical posse thought they'd beaten down the Big C for good.
Then last year, Durfey suspected that a growing bump on the top of his head meant the melanoma was back, a fear that was quickly confirmed. This time around, he had an allergic reaction to the chemo drugs that worked so well 10 years ago. Though Durfey has since tried four different chemotherapies—each more aggressive than the last—the cancer continues to spread to the point where doctors have given up. He's had radiation done on his head, hip bone, brain, ribs, chest, neck, spine and lungs, which helped shrink the tumors and ease the pain. But there's just no knockout victory in sight.
In this same situation, some people might quiver in the corner with fear. Others might just toss in the towel. But Durfey, now 34, keeps throwing punches and shuffling his feet with a smile on his face.
“I decided a while back to just stay positive,” he says. “It feels better to have a positive outlook than to get down and depressed. Life's about fun!”
When Durfey was diagnosed in 2007, he was about to head out on tour as a supporting member of Pinback. He didn't even consider quitting and instead practiced for hours to learn the band's intricate keyboard parts.
“It was an opportunity for me that I hadn't experienced yet,” he says. “I'd been on tour with Pinback before, opening up for them [with Jade Shader], and I knew we were really compatible. We were able to schedule the treatments around the tour, and I got full support from my family.”
“Boilermaker was one of the only bands I ever cared about in San Diego,” claims Pinback bassist and co-capo Zach Smith. “A lot of it had to do with Terrin and his vocals and the way that he carries a band. On tour, he'd be the only guy in the back, packing the van. And he's got cancer, you know? He really is a trooper and always has been.”
In August, Durfey joined Pinback for the band's biggest gig of the year. At a packed 4 O'Clock Fridays show at the Del Mar Racetrack, Durfey's entire family—wife Adrienne, 5-year-old son Dakota, parents and assorted cousins—stood backstage and beamed as he rocked out it in front of thousands of hometown fans. Unfortunately, by September, Durfey was feeling too ill to endure life on the road and had to pass up Pinback's national tour.
“His spirit is so strong that we feel his absence immediately,” says Chris Prescott, who also played in Jade Shader and now in Pinback. He's been one of Durfey's closest friends since 1993.
Durfey's legendarily upbeat attitude rarely lapses, but if pushed, he'll admit that things are tough.
“Since May, I haven't had the energy to play with my son or give my wife the help she needs,” he says. “And sometimes the treatments are more painful and debilitating than the cancer itself.”
But Adrienne points out that her husband is still there for her in ways he probably doesn't even realize. “He offers emotional support, and he seems to be stronger than I am sometimes,” she says. “His outlook on life and his optimism inspire me.”
Following his diagnosis, the Durfeys moved in with Terrin's parents in Fallbrook. Though his health insurance covers his medical expenses and he's on disability, the family still struggles to make ends meet. It seems like just about everyone in the San Diego music scene has rallied to help.
Last year, a number of local bands—including Mr. Tube and a surprise set by Pinback—played several fundraisers at Belly Up Tavern. At the merch table, fans could buy T-shirts that paid homage to Durfey's famous soupstrainer with a graphic of a mustache between the words “I” and “Terrin” (designed to resemble the iconic “I heart” tee). Throughout their 2008 tour, Pinback has been donating a portion of merch proceeds to help out.
“I honestly can't think of someone else who would garner this amount of support immediately and unconditionally,” Prescott says. “Everyone is rooting for the guy. I think he sometimes feels uncomfortable with the attention, but I believe he is in tune with all the positive wishes.”
Truthfully, the only place Durfey craves attention is on stage, where he wishes he could spend a little more time. “I love tours and I love playing in front of people. The camaraderie that a band creates and the friendships that are formed are lifelong.” Never losing his sense of humor, he then adds about Pinback bandmate Rob Crow, “And I get to see Rob's butt a lot while on tour.”
A fundraiser for Terrin Durfey, featuring Pinback and Mr. Tube, will be held Wednesday, Oct. 22, at The Casbah. 619-232-HELL. www.terrindurfeyfundraiser.org.