Hayes’ career was sidelined in 2011 when he was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer at age 42. He had his first major surgery Dec. 8, 2011, and after undergoing chemo was miraculously declared cancer-free. He later found out from his oncologist that the cancer was so advanced, the surgeon didn’t even want to operate because his chance of survival was so low.
“I got to go through the whole thing again when it came back in my lymph nodes,” Hayes says of the cancer returning a year later. “They were able to get all of the affected lymph nodes and I got to go through chemotherapy again. I just had my six-month scan, and I’m still cancer-free. They just moved me to six months instead of every three months for scans and there are things that we’re still watching. Anytime something is unusual, that means there are more blood tests, more ringing of the hands and more worrying, but so far everything has stayed cancer free. I’m very, very thankful for that. I’ve been cancer-free this time almost exactly three and half years.”
Hosting Country Hits Back is Hayes’ way of supporting the people who saved his life. “I was so fortunate to come back from stage 4. It’s atypical that somebody does that,” he says. “I thank God first, and Vanderbilt and Dr. [Jordan] Berlin and Dr. [Nipun] Merchant for assisting me in any way they could and I wanted to pay them back. They have a research group that I’m a part of, and they are on the cutting edge of discovering new ways to battle cancer. They are close to some big discoveries and they are unbelievably under-funded. You wouldn’t think that Vanderbilt would have anything that was under-funded, but they are. I’ve seen the numbers myself. I want to do anything I can to help somebody not have to go through what I went through. It’s not easy. I battled it for three years and it’s a tough time. I’m so thankful to still be here and I truly want to help. This is the only thing I know how to do is to try to raise money and help them discover new ways to help battle this thing.”
March is Colon Cancer Awareness Month and in addition to raising money to battle the disease, Hayes is hoping to raise awareness. “It is one of the deadliest cancers that there is, but it is the most fightable if you catch it in time,” he says. “I certainly want to encourage anybody who is 50 years old, anybody that has a family history or if you are experiencing any kind of odd symptoms with your digestive tract or anything like that, to please go get screened. Early detection is the best way to battle this thing.”
Hayes says the experience has taught him to appreciate everything, especially friends like Owen, who was there for him during his illness. “One of the very first people I remember seeing when I woke up after surgery was Randy Owen; his wife, Kelly; and their fiddle player and my friend Megan Mullins, who will also be there at the concert. She’ll be playing again this year,” says Hayes. “Those three had come to see me, and they were there when I woke up. It meant a lot to me that somebody of Randy Owen and Kelly Owen’s stature would come to see me. Randy’s got a big heart. He’s a good man and I honestly think the world of him.”
Last year’s Country Hits Back was a sellout that ended in a jam session with Hayes and special guests Miranda Lambert, Kix Brooks and Steve Wariner. Hayes says there may be some surprise guests this year, and he definitely plans to unite with Lawrence and Owen for the finale. “Last year, we all got up and did ‘Working Man Blues’ together at the end of the concert and this year I would love to get Tracy and Randy together to do a finale song,” he says. “When I’m playing with Randy, he does a great version of ‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken’ so whether it be that or something else, I’d love for us to do a jam at the end of just one song.”
Hayes is looking forward to a night of great music for a worthy cause. “These days, I’m enjoying playing more than I ever have and I really genuinely have a new lease on life and view it differently,” he says. “I realize two things -- one is how thankful I am to get to do this, to have great friends and get to play music with people that I’ve idolized, and number two, just realizing how much I took for granted before and how fortunate I am to still be here and not only be here, but get to be making music. Those two things stay on my mind when I perform, and will especially on March 7."