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Peter Criss Hits the Road to Educate Men About Breast Cancer

Peter Criss
Michael Ochs Archives, Getty Images

As most of us know, Peter Criss, founding drummer of Kiss, survived a breast cancer scare four years ago. Thankfully, everyone’s favorite “Catman” has been healthy ever since, and working hard to educate men about the importance of early detection.

He’ll be taking part in the 2011 Making Strides 3K walk in Point Pleasant Beach, N.J. this Sunday (Oct. 16), and took some time to tell us how he dealt with his diagnosis and how he’s helping others stay healthy. Of course, we couldn’t resist talking to him about his musical career first:

So, this is a big thrill for me. ‘Hotter than Hell’ is the first record I ever owned, at age eight.

Oh, great record — and I’m glad you called it a record, cause that’s what they are, although, it was a strange album, put it that way, but yeah, it was a good album.

Back then you guys recorded so fast, I’m amazed you can separate one record from the other.

Tell me about it, it was… make a record, then you tour the record, then you write as you’re touring, and then when you get off the tour you go into the studio, do another record, go back out with the record on the tour. In our day, that’s how it was. The dinosaur days, I call them. But man, I wouldn’t give them up for all the tea in China.

Why is that?

We really came up the right way, I was watching that ‘American Idol’ show, with Steven Tyler, and like David Letterman said, you get on there, and you’re kind of a star overnight, you really passed up the journey of going up the hill. I was a poor kid in Brooklyn, my dream was to play Madison Square Garden in front of my parents, and now that’s happened many many times — thanks to God, cause I’m a major Catholic kid.

But you had to build to it, nowadays people get right to it.

Oh yeah, our journey was hard, we had to play a lot of dives, we had to go through a lot. In those days that’s how you did it, it wasn’t some overnight, five million dollar contract — I wish! — but, ehh, that’s progress, to a degree.

Yeah, but they’ll be gone again in a few years, your music will still be here.

Yeah, I believe so too, but I watch it, and I’m a 20th century kid, I (laughs) hate the 21st century. I’m a really old-fashioned kid with the television, I’m a late ’50s kid, I grew up with ‘Hoppy’ and ‘The Lone Ranger,’ those kind of shows, with morals and integrity and honor, it seems like those are gone. I sound like my Dad! These kids today, I don’t believe it, it’s very sad. The messages were really pretty cool back then, but I find the stuff today, this reality stuff is appalling.

I have to help our pop site cover the singing shows from time to time, and I whine and cry like a big baby…

I don’t blame you! Give me a break, I tell my wife, ‘how much more can we take of it, and what more do I want to see or hear or know?’ Then, they show these people making millions of dollars catching alligators or making moonshine, or I don’t know what they’re doing. What is this? They don’t even have talent — God forgive me, but I don’t think so — it’s just a regular guy running a pawn shop, but they’re huge stars, and they’re making millions of dollars.

It’s a strange world.

To me, in my life now, coming on my next birthday, I look at life in a whole different perspective these last four years…

You’re gonna be 66, right?

Ohhhhhh, I hate it! (jokingly) We don’t even talk about it, ever since I turned sixty. But three is my lucky number, and those are double threes, so I’m expecting a really dynamite year. I feel real positive about a bunch of things coming up for me. I’m not alone, I look at other rock guys, like the Stones and Zeppelin and the Who, just all these people, we’re all the same age. So I’m in good company. All the guys my age were around in the great times, when music was changing, when Vietnam was happening, and the British Invasion.

I read a lot about your love of Gene Krupa and Sinatra, but you loved things like Zeppelin, right?

I liked it, I got to actually see them the first time they came here and performed at the Fillmore in the village, cause I was a real village kid. I used to hang with my dearest friend, who was the drummer of the New York Dolls, Jerry Nolan. Yes, I liked it, but I dug the Stones more, I was a huge Beatles fan, I loved what they were doing and think they changed the whole sound of music. And the lyrics were just — they were geniuses. As far as I felt, I lived during the Beethoven (era) of rock and roll. Their chords alone, it was brilliant. They were geniuses, they did things nobody dared, the whole world thought they were Gods. I love them the most, they were the favorite. Then I went towards bands like the Animals and the Yardbirds, bands like that I liked.

So, you’ve been cancer free for more than three years now, right?

Four years, and my checkup comes up next week. I’m real excited about it because I feel great, except for the old pains that come from drumming for fifty years. I go to the gym every day, I walk three and a half miles, I work out five days a week, I play down in the studio. My wife had cancer, too. It’s an amazing story, if not for her cancer I wouldn’t be living. She’s feeling good too. So I just feel great and I’m looking forward to going in. They say it’s five years and you’re out of the water. Personally, my experience is you’re never out of the water. Every day I wake up and I get a pain, I think of the big “C” immediately. Because once it’s in your body, its evil, and I never thought I’d have that in my body. I even went into therapy over it all, because I just couldn’t believe it. You just have that fear, it never goes away. But I’m not worried. Every day above ground, my Dad used to say, is a good day.

Just so we can help people out, how exactly did you first notice any signs of trouble?

It was a nodule, like a lump in my nipple and I discovered it when I got back from the gym. Look out for bumps and pain, a kind of pain where you just know — this is a kind of pain I’ve never had before. I’ve had cysts and I remember them and I remember the doctor taking them out. This was different, it hurt like hell, it got bigger as I screwed around with it.

So you realized right away this was something very different?

I don’t know why, of all things, cause men just don’t think of breast cancer, we just don’t, but I swear, buddy I just knew that breast cancer had hit me for some reason. I think that was my angel speaking, and the red light went on, like, this is something more, Peter, you’ve got to check this out now. By the grace of God, my wife was going that day for her own cancer problems, and told her doctor about me. She checked me out, and said ‘if my husband had that I would send him over to (doctor) Alex Swistel immediately, like now.

Then what happened?

So she calls and says, ‘I got a V.I.P. here’ — sometimes it’s nice to be famous, it does open the door, and trust me, I’m a down to earth guy, I don’t look at things like that, but boy it was a blessing. I got right in to the waiting room, and I started to get ill because I saw these beautiful women with no hair, wearing these turbans, and you could tell, the look of death was all over this room. There were other men, but they were all there with their wives. I just felt like, ‘what the hell am I doing here?,’ but thank God. He said, yes there’s something there and we should do a biopsy.

That must have been very scary.

Some time went by, at first they said it was negative, but then, a few weeks pass and I was healing. Then I got a call on a Saturday morning, you know that ‘are you standing or sitting’ type phone call? You just know, the bottom of your stomach falls out. He goes, ‘I got good news and really bad news. What do you want first?’ Well, the bad, of course. ‘You’ve got breast cancer, Peter. You have to come back in now, and I want to remove your nipple and your breast muscle and take your lymph nodes out and make sure we get this son of a bitch immediately, because I can because you came in so soon.’ It’s a miracle, and that’s how it can be treated.

That’s the key, isn’t it?

That is the key, early detection, my friend. The minute you feel something, I don’t care if it’s under your arm or your leg or your testicles or behind your ear. You must tell someone or go to your doctor immediately. Just sitting around, you won’t be here next year. When I went in for surgery, I was a wreck, my blood pressure must have been 300, it wouldn’t come down, but after they give you the (drugs), forget about it, you’re not on the planet anymore. When I woke up, he was smiling, ‘there’s no sign of it at all anywhere, I got everything, you’re gonna be great, you don’t need chemotherapy, you don’t need medication.’

That must have been quite a relief.

I was still scared. It was painful, and strange to have your nipple removed, but hey, they could have taken them both, whatever they needed to do. After a while, it started feeling better and better. Alex has this spring home near me, we became good friends, as doctor / patient relationships go. After the first year went through, Gigi (Peter’s wife) and I sat down, and I asked ‘Do you think I should say something, you know before this goes out and another Patrick Swayze or Farrah Fawcett thing goes down. Cause I had a run-in with them before –

Yeah, with the impersonator, right?

Yeah, and I sued the ‘Star,’ and I won, but it was a nightmare cause my mother just passed, I was going through a divorce, it couldn’t have been any worse timing. I said, I don’t want to go through that, I don’t want reporters outside our home. We live a very private life — I’m sort of a recluse, in my own way. So I went to church and prayed on it, and Gigi and I talked about it for hours. She said, ‘I think you should do it, you should just say it. Get out on ‘Good Morning America’ and CNN and the whole nine yards, say you beat it and let men know that they can get it and they can die from it.’

It was very brave of you to do..

I’m the tough kid from the streets, and I am a man I feel, but that made me more of a man, to stand up and say this to the world. I mean that; it was for me, the biggest guts I needed to have in any situation. It was pretty heavy to get on TV and talk about it, I couldn’t believe I was doing it. But I did it and it felt great, I know I did the right thing, I got a lot of positive feedback from it. I started doing lectures at hospitals and getting more involved. Now, this year I’m doing the 3K again, I’m very excited, hundreds and hundreds of people show up, it’s like a cool Woodstock. I feel like Ghandi, all these people around me asking all these questions, these major Kiss fans. Last year was the most spiritual moment I’ve ever had in my life, with the love that was going around, everybody was on the same page, wanted the same thing — to find a cure and beat this thing.

That would be nice.

I don’t know a person in the world who doesn’t know someone who has cancer, personally. Almost everyone does. My mother died from it, from smoking. I got into it, every October I get my checkup, and Gigi and I put a lot of things aside, and I do interviews and I do radio things, and I do the walk. They tell me they pull in a lot more people than they ever did. Hopefully this year they’ll do ever better. Then after October, it’s my time again. Trust me, it’s very draining. After the walk last year, I was so moved by all the people who told me stories of such horror, of their mom or dad or their kid. My head was spinning when I left. I slept for like three days, just hearing the all the damage done by this disease. It moved me in the way music moved me, or God moves me.

Have you heard any stories of the positive impact you’ve had on people?

I’ve gotten some calls from doctors, about men who did come in cause they saw me, and they did have it, and they did get it right away, yeah.

So you’re pretty much saving lives!

(laughs) Yeah! When I say that, it sounds so surreal to me, I don’t believe I’m saying that, but I guess that’s what it’s all about!

(We’ll have more from Peter later, regarding the autobiography he’s working on, the prospects of another solo album and more about how he’s keeping himself healthy after this big scare. But for now let’s stay focused. Please be sure to visit the Making Strides website and consider sponsoring Peter or one of the other walkers.)

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