Charles Bradley and stomach cancer

Dr. Gabe Mirkin
Dr. Gabe Mirkin

Soul singer Charles Bradley died of stomach cancer on September 23, 2017 at the very young age of 68. As you read his life story, you will cry just as I did, because of the incredible hardships this man overcame to eventually become a famous singer. His soulful moaning and yelling came from a man who spent much of his life alone, even sleeping on the streets, and was plagued by illiteracy, poverty and lack of a steady job. He was never paid for singing on stage until age 42 when he got his first break only because he could impersonate James Brown. He didn’t release his first record album until he was 62.  His fans loved him because many shared his life experiences.  Just a couple years ago, he went into the audience to sing as he often did, and he noticed a young man sitting in the back and crying.  He went up to the guy and asked him why he was crying, and the guy replied: “My brother died last night.”  He sat down next to the guy and started crying also.  After a couple of minutes, his tour manager came up to him and said, “Charles, it’s time to go. Gotta go back on stage.”

Charles Bradley
Charles Bradley

One year ago he was first diagnosed with stomach cancer, was treated and told that he appeared to be cured.  This fall, he started another tour on the road, but had to cut it short because the cancer had returned and spread to his liver.  

The Hard, Hard Facts of Life

Bradley was born in 1948 in Florida and his mother left him with his maternal grandmother in Gainesville, until the age of eight when his mother came back to take him with her to live in Brooklyn, Ny. in a basement with a sand floor.  At age 14, his sister took him to the Apollo Theater to see James Brown, which changed his life.  He practiced singing and mimicking Brown’s mannerisms at home.  His mother made his life miserable; he said that she blamed him for everything and that his life was so disorganized that he ran away from home. For two years he slept days on the streets and nights on subway trains.  He did get some help from social service organizations and they encouraged him to enlist in Job Corps, which sent him to Bar Harbor, Maine to learn how to be a chef.  There he met members of a band who let him sing with them as a James Brown impersonator, but the band members were drafted into the Vietnam War.  He worked as a cook in Maine for ten years and then hitchhiked to upstate New York, Seattle, Canada and Alaska and finally landed in California in 1977. For the next 20 years, he worked during the day and got occasional jobs imitating James Brown in minor clubs.

In 1996, at age 48, he was laid off from his job and his mother called him and asked him to take care of her, so he moved back to Brooklyn to live with her.  He adopted the name Black Velvet and got occasional jobs doing his James Brown imitations.   One morning, he woke up to hear his mother crying and was told that his older brother, Joseph, was robbed and murdered by one of his own nephews. He described that terrible morning:  “I went crazy; I just couldn’t take it. I tried to run in front of cars — I ran in front of everything that was moving, but nothing would hit me. And I went on the subway train, right at the end of the track. I didn’t have the heart to fall in the track, but I was wishing the wind would just push me. But this man, this old man, came to me and said, ‘Son, it’s not worth it,’ and he pulled me back.”   Later, he wrote a song about this terrible experience:  “I woke up this morning/My momma she was cryin/So I looked out my window/Police lights was flashing/People was screaming/So I ran down to the street/My friends grabbed my shoulder/And he said these words to me: Life is full of sorrow.”

While he was working as a 62-year-old handyman days and imitating James Brown in clubs nights, a record producer saw him, liked his performance and offered to get him jobs singing. He later produced his first record album, “No Time for Dreaming,” that was named by Rolling Stone as one of the 50 Best Albums of the Year.  He was now big time for the first time in his life, but fame was short.  He died at age 68 from stomach cancer that had spread to his liver. 

Stomach Cancer Causes and Symptoms

The most common suspected cause of stomach cancer is infection with a germ called Helicobacter pylori. Almost half of the world’s population is infected with this germ and about one percent of those infected go on to develop stomach cancer, although it can take many decades for this to happen (Cell Reports, June, 2015;11(11):1703–1713).  Charles Bradley could have been born with Helicobacter or he could have picked it up any time from polluted water or contaminated food.  Helicobacter can be treated using two antibiotics and one medicine to shut down stomach acid for 14 days, plus avoidance of alcohol.  However, up to 20 percent of patients with H. pylori infection are not cured by the first course of treatment. A second treatment regimen including two different antibiotics often offers a cure.

Other risk factors for stomach cancer include 

•  a diet high in smoked or salted foods 

•  a diet low in fruits and vegetables 

•  obesity 

•  eating foods contaminated with a fungus called aflatoxin

•  family history of stomach cancer 

•  long-term stomach inflammation

•  pernicious anemia 

•  smoking

•  stomach polyps

Symptoms of stomach cancer can include belly pain, bloating, feeling full after a small meal, lack of hunger, fatigue, nausea or vomiting, dark or tar-colored stools and a low red blood count.

Dr. Gabe Mirkin is a Villager. Learn more at www.drmirkin.com

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