The Hills Are Alive

Sunday, Oct. 14, 3 p.m. $10

The Station, Carrboro

Last summer, Corbie Hill noticed an odd bump on his neck.

“I figured it was just one of those indignities that comes with being in your thirties, and I didn’t think twice about it,” says the journalist and musician.

He and his wife Rachel, who works as an occupational therapist, were busy with everyday life. They had two young daughters to care for—Sarah, who’s now eight, and Lucy, who’s six—and they were working on planning a summer beach trip. But when Corbie noticed another lump on his jaw, he went to his doctor, who ordered a blood test.

The next day, August 12, was a Saturday, and Corbie ignored a call from a blocked number while reading a Batman comic. Within a few minutes, Rachel got a call herself. It was Corbie’s doctor, relaying the news that his white-blood-cell count was extremely high. After depositing their daughters with Rachel’s parents nearby, Corbie and Rachel spent next several days in the hospital with a rotating cast of specialists.

Thus began a harrowing year for the Pittsboro-based Hills, one that would come to include two cancer diagnoses and a relentless stream of medical bills. The Hills are alive, but they need some help—and this weekend, the local music community is stepping up to make that happen.

Corbie remembers that first hospital stay as “hellacious.” He was diagnosed with lymphoma, then leukemia, before doctors honed in on Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL). The cancer typically strikes those over age seventy—at age thirty-five, Corbie’s age group didn’t even show up on statistical models, he says. The disease doesn’t respond to chemotherapy, and until about nine years ago, was considered terminal. It is now controllable by medication, though it is something Corbie will have to manage for the rest of his life.

“Given the choice of incurable and terminal, I’ll take incurable,” he says.

Rachel and Corbie met in 2001 while they were attending college at UNC-Asheville, and they bonded over The Simpsons, according to Corbie. Though they’re both cerebral and kind-natured, Rachel’s calm demeanor counterpoints Corbie’s more effusive personality. The pair has structured their lives around being able to spend quality time with their children. They both work hard, but with Rachel employed in the school system, they have spaciousness in the summers. Corbie’s work as editor in chief for the magazine OutreachNC and as a freelance writer for outlets like No Depression means that his schedule accommodates picking the girls up from school every day. This flexibility and ability to work from home was even more cherished when, about eleven months later, Rachel received her own cancer diagnosis.

“I have a strong family history of breast cancer, so I knew it was something that I needed to be aware of, that it was maybe even a likelihood,” Rachel says.

This summer, she found an area she was concerned about and scheduled a mammogram with her doctor. She was diagnosed with 1B early-stage breast cancer. Rachel carried neither of the genetic mutation markers for breast cancer susceptibility, but elected to utilize the genetic information she did have and decided to undergo a double mastectomy to decrease the likelihood of recurrence. While she is still recovering from the surgery, Rachel’s possibility of recurrence now falls at about twelve percent.

“There are more differences than similarities between the treatment of the two. His was more of an emotional struggle and shock,” says Rachel when I ask them about how they managed this past year. “It was our first cancer!” Corbie laughs. Even so, Rachel’s surgical procedure meant that there were days and weeks where Corbie had heavier care responsibilities; the weight of their shared emotional stress began to stack up.

At first, the pair’s bills were manageable, and they credited their state health insurance with cushioning the blow. But once bills for Rachel’s tests and doctor’s visits started coming in, the pair began to get seriously worried.

 “In terms of cancer care, you shouldn’t also be in total terror of going bankrupt. You should be able to spend this time with your loved ones,” Corbie says. “I was working at home, freelancing for two outlets, and helping Rachel recuperate after surgery. The days were just so exhausting. And I’m also thinking, ‘How are we going to afford survival?’”

In addition to being a music writer (which included work for INDY Week for several years), Corbie is a musician, and had played several solo shows under the name Land Is with Mebane folk-rock group Stray Owls. The band’s frontman, Matt French, is behind this weekend’s kid-friendly benefit to help the Hills get back on their feet.

The roster features several acts that Corbie has covered and played with over the years, including Blue Cactus, Gray Young, and Al Riggs. As well as helping assuage their medical bills, French notes that the show is also a statement of support.

“They’re brave people and good folks. It’s just to let them know that we have their back,” he says. “I’ll be forty next month, and I have two kids. It wasn’t a stretch to put myself in their shoes.”

Additionally, in lieu of a GoFundMe, anyone can contribute via the Bandcamp page for Corbie’s group Alpha Cop. This felt moderately more private for Corbie and Rachel, two people who are used to supporting others and being behind the scenes.

“I feel really self-conscious,” says Corbie. “One reason I like being a professional writer is even though my byline is on the story, the story isn’t about me.”

Regardless, he and Rachel are appreciative of and humbled by the support from the community they’ve been a part of for so long. Though they certainly never expected their family’s story to take such a turn, they’re back on their way toward a happily-ever-after.