On Oct. 6, 2020, Wolfgang Van Halen took to Instagram to reveal that his dad, « Edward Lodewijk Van Halen, has lost his long and arduous battle with cancer this morning. » Calling him « the best father I could ever ask for, » Wolfgang continued, « My heart is broken and I don’t think I’ll ever fully recover from this loss. I love you so much, Pop. »
The guitar virtuoso and co-founder of legendary rock group Van Halen had spoken publicly about his decades-long health struggles, but his passing at the age of 65 still sent shockwaves around the world. According to TMZ, Van Halen’s health flew into a rapid demise in the 72 hours prior to his death after doctors discovered that the cancer which had originated in his lungs had spread to other organs, including the brain. Van Halen took his final breath at St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica, Calif., surrounded by those he loved most: wife Janie Liszewski, son Wolfgang, ex-wife (and Wolfgang’s mother) Valerie Bertinelli, and brother Alex Van Halen.
Bertinelli paid tribute to her late ex on Twitter, showcasing his fighting spirit by writing, « Through all your challenging treatments for lung cancer, you kept your gorgeous spirit and that impish grin. I’m so grateful Wolfie and I were able to hold you in your last moments, » she added.
Although clearly beloved, Eddie Van Halen had more than his share of turbulent times, which is our focus here as we explore the more tragic details of his life.
Eddie Van Halen grew up with an alcoholic father
Eddie Van Halen wasn’t even a teenager when he picked up his first drink. As he told Billboard, « I started drinking and smoking when I was 12. I got drunk before I’d show up to high school, » he revealed. He was drinking so much that his ninth grade science teacher could actually smell the alcohol on him and confronted him — but his message wasn’t what you might expect. « He told me, ‘Don’t drink anything you can’t see through,' » Van Halen recalled. « And I was like, ‘So, vodka?’ And he said ‘Yeah.’ Which was great, because that was my drink. »
The rocker wasn’t reprimanded at home either. « I’m not blaming my father at all, but he was an alcoholic, too, » he told Billboard, adding, « So in our household, it was normal. But it never affected his work, although, I guess it didn’t affect my work, either. » And although he might not be to blame, Van Halen’s dad certainly didn’t discourage his son from relying on alcohol when things got tough. As the musician told Esquire in 2012, « the whole alcoholism thing » started because he was a shy kid struggling with getting up on stage to perform. « I don’t mean to blame my dad, but when I started playing in front of people, I’d get so damn nervous, » he revealed. « I asked him, ‘Dad, how do you do it?’ That’s when he handed me the cigarette and the drink. And I go, ‘Oh, this is good! It works!’ For so long, it really did work. »
Addiction controlled Eddie Van Halen’s life for decades
From the release of Van Halen’s self-titled debut album in 1978, the California-based band went through more incarnations than most. But whether it was David Lee Roth on vocals, or Sammy Hagar, or even Gary Cherone (whom Van Halen actually fired, according to Billboard), the one constant was Eddie Van Halen’s attraction to drugs and alcohol. Speaking candidly about his struggle with addiction in a 2015 Billboard cover story, Van Halen admitted, « I was an alcoholic, and I needed alcohol to function. » But his addiction had nothing to do with the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. Instead, he relied on vodka and cocaine to help him write. While the rest of the band went out celebrating after each gig, the legendary musician would head back to his hotel room and try to work, in his own unique way.
« I didn’t drink to party, » he explained. « Alcohol and cocaine were private things to me. I would use them for work, » he said, continuing, « The blow keeps you awake and the alcohol lowers your inhibitions. I’m sure there were musical things I would not have attempted were I not in that mental state. You just play by yourself with a tape running, and after about an hour, your mind goes to a place where you’re not thinking about anything. » However, by 2004, he admits he « became a very angry drunk » and so, in 2008, he finally got sober.
Eddie Van Halen lost a third of his tongue to cancer
In addition to drinking and doing cocaine, Eddie Van Halen was also a lifelong smoker, which likely resulted in his greatest health struggle of all. When Esquire met up with Van Halen in 2012, journalist David Curcurito described him as « the healthiest fifty-seven-year-old I’ve ever seen. » But behind the « happy, lean and muscled » facade lay a heartbreaking health battle with tongue cancer.
It was 2000 when, according to the magazine, Van Haled found « a callus on his tongue. » Initially, he didn’t make much of it, but doctors later diagnosed the abnormality as cancer. As Curcurito wrote, they asked Van Halen to drink « an experimental radioactive rinse, » then eventually removed a portion of his tongue « shaped like the end of his pick. » According to Billboard, the musician actually lost one third of his tongue to the disease, which led him to quit smoking, but as the mag discovered, he was now « compulsively vaping » instead.
Did music make Eddie Van Halen sick?
Could it be that Eddie Van Halen’s first love, the thing that he loved most — music — caused his battle with tongue cancer? Following the diagnosis, the musician didn’t seem willing to place the blame on his heavy smoking. Instead, he had a different theory, which he shared with Billboard: « I used metal picks — they’re brass and copper — which I always held in my mouth, in the exact place where I got the tongue cancer, » he reasoned, adding, « Plus, I basically live in a recording studio that’s filled with electromagnetic energy. So that’s one theory. » Conceding that he was indeed « smoking and doing a lot of drugs and a lot of everything » for most of his life, he continued, « But at the same time, my lungs are totally clear. This is just my own theory, but the doctors say it’s possible, » he concluded.
Van Halen’s theory is possible, but unlikely, according to Dr. Tom Micklewright who spoke with Insider, because neither copper nor brass are classified as carcinogens. « Copper coils have been used as contraception in the human body for many years without evidence in increased cancer risk, » he explained, adding, « In contrast, numerous chemicals contained within cigarettes have been conclusively proven to significantly increase cancer risk. »
The cancer returned and new problems arose
As Eddie Van Halen revealed during his 2012 interview with Esquire, despite being cancer-free for numerous years following surgery on his tongue, the disease returned twice in 2011. « I haven’t talked about this, because I don’t talk about this, » he noted, but admitted that doctors had found and removed cancer cells from his throat in the spring, then found the cancer was back in his tongue in the fall and were forced to remove another piece of it.
Unfortunately, his health deteriorated again in 2012 when he was rushed to hospital for « emergency surgery for a severe bout of diverticulitis, » as the band revealed on its site (via The Atlantic). According to Mayo Clinic, diverticula are « small, bulging pouches that can form in the lining of your digestive system » and when they become inflamed or infected that leads to diverticulitis, which « can cause severe abdominal pain, fever, nausea and a marked change in your bowel habits. » Despite the severity of the condition, the band confirmed that « no further surgeries are needed and a full recovery is expected within 4-6 months. »
Was Eddie Van Halen secretly suffering for years?
Following his 2012 health scare, Eddie Van Halen remained largely silent about his battle with cancer, but according to TMZ, it (sadly) wasn’t because he was in remission. As the outlet reported in October 2019, the rocker had been traveling from the U.S. to Germany to seek treatment for throat cancer « very quietly for years. » They went on to reveal that, since first being diagnosed in 2000, he’s not only had to have cancer cells removed from his throat multiple times, but had also been getting radiation in Germany for five years without really telling anyone.
But that’s not all. Eddie Van Halen was dealt yet another blow in his fight to get healthy when his cancer treatment resulted in its own series of complications in 2019. As TMZ reported that November, he was taken to hospital for several days due to an adverse reaction caused by the cancer-fighting drugs, which led to « intestinal issues and abdominal pain, » according to the outlet.