As lead guitarist of blockbuster rock band Pearl Jam, Mike McCready has the world by his fingertips. Creating some of the most memorable music of the last two decades and playing before thousands of fans each night he seems downright invincible. But for years only those closest to McCready were privy to his Achilles' heel — that he suffers from Crohn's disease. After coming out about his condition, a decade ago, McCready became the disease's unofficial spokesperson, and raises money for the cause, playing with his UFO tribute band Flight to Mars at the annual CCFA benefit concert in Seattle.
Currently McCready is busy with side projects, including an album with band Walking Papers (also featuring Guns N' Roses bassist Duff McKagan) and TV scoring, before Pearl Jam returns to the studio to finish up their 10th studio album early next year. But with the presidential election just around the corner, he has also joined with filmmaker Jesse Dylan to create "Life is a Pre-existing Condition," a video about the importance of nationalized healthcare, especially for those with pre-existing conditions. McCready spoke to Healthline about this initiative, coming out about Crohn's to his bandmates, how he treats it, and how loved ones can offer their support to those with this condition.
What inspired the making of "Life is a Pre-existing Condition"?
The video was inspired by a woman named Jennifer Jaff who recently passed away, a dear friend of mine, who my wife and I supported for many years. She had a program called 'Advocacy for Patients,' which is still around, and helped low-income people who needed to get insurance. Her last wish to me, right before she died, was to talk about the Affordable Care Act and pre-existing conditions, because I have Crohn's disease, as she did.
Why is Pres. Obama’s Affordable Care Act the answer?
I just think, for me, playing in a big rock band, in Pearl Jam, and being able to get insurance, myself… I've been dropped two times and I can afford it. And that's been kind of weird to me, in terms of if that happens to me, then what happens to a low-income,12-year-old boy who has juvenile diabetes or Crohn's or Colitis and can't get insurance, and can't go to the doctor to get help, what do they do? That's my question.
That's why I believe that the Affordable Care Act can be a wide-ranging, all-encompassing thing through which people that actually need healthcare can get it. And it's going to be quicker, because it's a presidential mandate.
Why couldn't you get insurance?
I don't know exactly why. When I had a flare-up, my doctor prescribed me a life-supporting treatment, and my insurance company denied it. Jennifer Jaff had to help me petition them and got them to bring it to an external review board, and they looked at it, and the board deemed my treatment necessary. Luckily, there was an external board there that wasn't just the insurance company that deemed it necessary. I don't know why I was denied. But I was denied and I know a lot of people who continue to be denied. It's sad that it happens and it doesn't have to happen.
I read that you found out that you had Crohn's at 21, when you had a flare-up. Can you talk to us about that?
I was 21, living in L.A. and trying to make it in my band Shadow back in 1986. I was starving, didn't have a good diet, and was stressed out. All these different factors were going on. One day I was in a restaurant on Melrose, eating, and I had to get into a bathroom very quickly with this extreme abdominal pain and stomach… I could barely stand it. I was crying. I went to the bathroom and blood and mucus came out. I was thinking, 'Did I eat something wrong? What happened?'
At what point did you seek treatment?
It didn't go away for a week, so I went to the doctor, and they said, 'It looks like you have Crohn's Disease.' I was like 'What was that?' I had never heard of it before. I immediately got on one of the two drugs available back then. It was a hard pill to swallow literally and figuratively.
The thing I didn't do for a long time was talk about it, because I was ashamed of it. I didn't want anyone to know I would have an accident 20 times a day or that I would go to the bathroom and it totally hurt and there was blood, so it made me isolate and ruined me for a long time. Then I started talking about it and that opened a million different doors, and one of them is where I am right now talking to you.
According to researchers, there is a genetic association with Crohn's disease. Is this something that you inherited?
In terms of my own family, I don't know. I don't think it was something that was talked about in previous generations. Fifty years ago, I don't think my grandpa was talking about, like 'Oh, I shit myself.' It's just not something you talked about. It was not a socially acceptable thing to do and it still isn't in many cases. But I'll talk about it till the cows come home. So I don't know. I haven't heard of anyone in my family that had it.
Do you worry that you might pass it on to your children?
Consistently. Yes, I worry about my children, and on the level of having affordable health care, or any pre-existing conditions, of course I'd be devastated if they couldn't get insurance or if they were dropped or denied by some sort of insurance board. That would make me furious and sad.
I certainly worry about my kids, and we've taken whatever precautions we can in terms of diet early on in their developmental stages. My wife and I have been proactive in that. So who knows? I hope they don't get it, but if they do, we'll do whatever we can, as any parent would.
Do you think that dealing with Crohn's is harder for kids?
I was 21. I was a big boy. When I hear that kids have it and are struggling with the amount of pain and degradation, it makes me kind of crazy. When you're 12 or 13-years-old, you're going to have a hard enough time dealing with the external peer pressure or kids making fun of you, and on top of that you have a debilitating disease — it's a bad card to be dealt.
Did you ever feel like you couldn't be a touring musician with Crohn's?
Yes. But when I first started playing with Stone Gossard, and Pearl Jam was first starting back in 1990, I said 'Look dude, I have this thing called 'Crohn's disease,' and it's nasty and it can be a problem.' This was even before we had dreams of going on the road; it was just him and I playing in his parents' attic. But he was super cool with it and understanding.
That being said, when the band was in its infancy stage and all of a sudden we're playing and things started to work, and I had Crohn's and was having episodes, I was like I'm still following this path. This was the first band I was in where all five guys were hitting on all cylinders and I didn't want to lose that, so I went for it. There were times when I questioned it. But I thought, 'Crohn's doesn't define me, it's part of me, but I define myself.' These are realizations that took me a long time to come to.
How did you first break the news to the other Pearl Jam members?
They're all super sensitive guys and we're all brothers in a way. We're all aware of each other's things and are supportive of each other's ailments, organizations, or things that we do. So they were very supportive and very receptive.
When I came out and talked about having Crohn's 10 years ago, they all showed up to that talk. They made me feel really good about being with these guys. I'm grateful that I'm in a band where I'm happy to see these guys. We don't always get along, we fight, but at the end of the day we all love each other. The five of us have been through something that has brought us all together.
Have there been accidents along the way?
I've had my accidents on the road and a ton of bad times because of it. But compare it to a mailman or a woman who has to drive two hours from Long Beach to L.A. in traffic five days a week — those are cases that are equally detrimental to me walking around in Prague on a day off and not being able to find a bathroom.
How do you treat your Crohn's?
I'm on a drug called 'Humira' and I do an injectable of that every week. I also do a certain diet, work out, and try to maintain a positive mental attitude within it. I try to maintain a mental, physical, and spiritual balance. When those three things are in line, my life is better. It's something I constantly have to work at.
Also, I talk to other people who have Crohn's and Colitis and ask them what they do and how they deal with their stuff. That's where the solution is a lot of the times, in hearing other people's stories.
Are there foods you have had to give up?
Every single person who has it has different things that they cannot process. For myself, I certainly stay away from fried foods, and I don't eat lettuce, corn, or vegetables that are not cooked, because they are hard to digest. Or pizza, which is hard because I love it.
Which food do you miss eating most?
I find new foods. I don't dwell on it. [Thinking] Maybe like a Dick's cheeseburger, which I loved as a kid, going to high school in Seattle. So I miss those, but I don't miss feeling crappy.
What advice would you offer someone recently diagnosed with Crohn’s?
I would say that it's not the end of the world. There are many solutions out there; there are diets, there are up to 20 drugs that they're working on right now, and some that are already out there. Find a good gastroenterologist if you can. If not, Google the Crohn's & Colitis Foundation of America and find out if there's a chapter near you. These are people who do events where you can meet people that have Crohn's. Just do stuff that's proactive to make you feel less isolated and know that there are solutions and to just get out there.
What is the best way for a loved one to support someone with Crohn’s?
What is critical is having love, and having understanding and having the patience to deal with… to take your loved one to a doctor's appointment or know that they can't go to the movie that night because they're too sick to go out. Look it up and find out what Crohn's and Colitis is all about and try to relate to them. Just think of it in terms of: if you have had the worst diarrhrea that you've ever had and times it by 10 or if you can imagine having to go to the bathroom 20 times, know that that's just an inkling of what it's like. Just have love and try to be proactive and supportive. That's what my parents gave me and my bandmates do, and that's what works for me.
What can we do to support others with Crohn's or pre-existing conditions?
They can sign on to signon.org. It will help support the Affordable Care Act. They can vote people into office that support the Affordable Care Act. Know that there are solutions out there and they can come to us quicker than waiting for other solutions. There can be a national, universal healthcare that can happen, and in my mind it's a civil and moral right for us and our kids and futur