There’s a poorly kept secret amongst cancer fighters and survivors: we always manage to find each other. It’s kind of like how you see your ex’s car everywhere after a breakup -- even if you want to run as far away as possible, the C-word constantly pops up, like a neon sign with Energizer Bunny-like regenerative powers.
Though Charles Esten himself is not a cancer survivor, he is the caregiver of one. When the Nashville star’s daughter, Addie, was two-and-a-half years old, she was diagnosed with leukemia. Now almost 18, Addie is thriving, dominating the soccer field on a national-level team and getting ready to play the sport at a D-1 college. But the fact that Esten's baby girl had to go through such a harrowing experience so early in her life has remained with him.
“Everything is made more magical. That's the strange thing of going through such hardship, is the sparkle that it puts to everything else -- the additional sparkle to regular things, even great things,” he mused. “There would be times that she would just be on the soccer field and [my wife, Patty Hanson, and I] would just catch each other's eye, like, ‘Can you believe that little girl out there? What she's been through, what she's done?’ And that's why we're so incredibly grateful. Not every child along the way that we met made it. That's why there's still walking to be done and fundraising to be done.”
The walking he's referring to is the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s (LLS) Light the Night events. Full disclosure: I am a non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma survivor, though I was 25 years older than Addie when I was diagnosed. Like Esten, I participate in events with LLS, though I work with their Team in Training arm, because I remember all too clearly what the pain, both mentally and physically, felt like while going through chemotherapy and radiation, and I hope that one day no other child or young adult has to suffer through blood cancer. When Esten and I chatted last month, just days before he was set to begin filming season six of Nashville, it was evident that same hope is what drives him in his philanthropic work.
“It was her battle, but we were alongside and obviously part of it every single second,” Esten says of Addie’s days in treatment, which involved two years of chemo. “They tell you 10 years -- that’s the number we were given before you were really able to breathe. I think they were being super conservative with their estimate, but there's no finish line. [It] never really felt like, 'We're good now!'"
"Part of your instinct is to sort of lower your head and walk away from the scene of the crime, but that doesn't feel right and it isn’t right, because the reason you get to walk away is because of the people who came before, the people that did the research, the people that gave and raised money so that all those trials could happen," he continued. "They were that reason that when our diagnosis was given, Addie's rate of survival was at 85 percent as opposed to, when I was a kid, it was a virtual death sentence. We knew that many had come before us and not put their head in the sand, but dug in and came alongside everyone else and started to help.”
His involvement with LLS began when Addie was named a Girl of the Year, continued with hosting events and live auctions during his Whose Line Is It Anyway? days, and blossomed into working with the Middle Tennessee chapter of LLS after his family -- which also includes 21-year-old daughter Taylor and 19-year-old son Chase -- moved to the area for Nashville, and his being named an Honorary National Spokesperson for the organization.
“Immediately, we were made to feel part of the family, but the real bonding and the thing that cemented our commitment and our ties to the group had to be that first Light the Night Walk. I'll never forget walking on a bridge and everyone holding up these blue lights. I was blown away," he recalled. "Everything else about Addie's recovery had been so gradual and slow and there was no real milestone, per say. That was the first thing that felt so dramatically like a milestone. We were so many years out of it, and from that early diagnosis where you feel alone and everything feels very dark, now you're standing on a bridge with all these amazing hearts and all these good people who have been through it in some way or knew somebody who was going through it or just wanted to come and make sure nobody else went through it, so you're not alone in any sense of the word.”
Esten's next Light the Night event takes place in Nashville on Oct. 20 and will include a Light the Night After Party, an annual concert he hosts that features many of his famous country music friends and CMT co-stars. In past years, Nashville co-stars like Clare Bowen, Jonathan Jackson and Sam Palladio have all shown up.
A big reason the 52-year-old actor can call on help from his famous friends each year is because of the close-knit ties in Nashville. After years spent in Los Angeles chasing his acting dreams and working on shows like Whose Line, moving to the Tennessee city was kismet.
“This place, Nashville, it feels like a home we had never been to before but, ultimately, it became our home,” he said. “I'm very fortunate, because these characters on our show, we're going through tough times, the hardest of times, including the cancer storyline that [my character Deacon] has been through. But the thing that happens again and again on our show is we find that when you go through these times, people come alongside you."
Much like he calls on his friends for help, Esten has also been asked to join in on other musician’s charitable efforts, which he says he is "blessed" to get to do. Just last month, he participated in the nationwide Hand-to-Hand hurricane relief telethon; the Grand Ole Opry’s Country Cares For St. Jude Kids with Luke Bryan, Alabama’s Randy Owen and his co-star, Bowen; and Lee Brice’s Folds of Honor Guitar Pull, which raised money for educational scholarships for families of fallen or injured military men and women.
“I probably get more from each of those events than I bring to them. I got to sit on stage with these friends and guys who I love -- Lee Brice, Tyler Farr and Jerrod Neimann -- and make music with them, which is something I would do for free if there was no audience,” he admitted. “You now change that to, not only is there an audience, there's an audience of some of the finest people you will ever meet in your life, in terms of what they do and give to this country and what they've sacrificed, and you are helping in some small way to make lives better for not just them but for the people that they are reaching out and taking care of? C'mon now, that's unbelievable.”
“There's something about this city, too -- there's a real culture of kindness,” he continued. “This town gives back. Country music gives back. I love that so much and so when it comes to that, I'm all in, and I feel lucky to be apart of it all.”
Speak to nearly any Music City-based musician, and they’ll tell you nearly the same thing about their town, but that magic seems extra special for Esten.
“In a very strange way, everything about Nashville to me all rolls up into one amazing experience that pulls together so many parts of my life,” he explained. “I've been a singer-songwriter, primarily in country music, for a long time now. Obviously, i've been an actor my whole life. And now the way that it's dovetailed and lifted my ability to be in Nashville and these charitable events, it's all come together in such a perfect way.”