Having breast cancer was hard, but I’m stronger than that.
by Julie McKenna
Melissa Etheridge captivated fans with her performance at the Grammy Awards last February when she delivered her trademark bluesy-style rock and raspy voice. What no one expected, however, was that she performed with no hair as a result of the chemotherapy treatments she was undergoing for breast cancer.
When she was asked to perform at the Grammys, Melissa tells me it was definitely something she wanted to do, but not to prove anything to anyone. “That was about myself. That was directed at me and showing myself that I’m alive and well and I’m not beat,” explains Melissa. “And yeah, having breast cancer was hard, but I’m stronger than that.”
Melissa confesses she had concerns about her appearance – at first. “For just a second I thought, gee, should I wear a wig? But I thought, nah –I’ve never worn a wig and I think it would fall off my head,” she jokes. “So that wasn’t really an option. And then when I found the jacket with the high neck, I was like, no – my bald head actually looks good in this jacket!”
Despite her confidence, Melissa still felt some trepidation the night before the Grammys. “I remember sitting with my partner, Tammy, and saying, ‘I just hope nobody makes fun of me,’” Melissa remembers. “But then I also thought, maybe there are a couple of people on chemo right now who will feel better seeing me out there.”
Melissa was shocked and thrilled by the enthusiastic response she received after her performance. “I had no idea the reverberations it would have … the effect it had was unexpected.”
It is late summer as I talk with Melissa, nearly a year since she discovered she had breast cancer in the fall of 2004. I ask her what she remembers about the day she was diagnosed and she admits that everything is still fresh in her mind. “October 9 – a day I’ll never forget,” she muses. “I had actually been on tour in Canada and I had about two weeks left of my tour when I discovered the lump. I had a few days off so I flew home right away.”
Melissa immediately had a biopsy, which confirmed breast cancer. “The afternoon that I got the diagnosis, I knew I was going to have to cancel eleven shows,” Melissa says of the remaining leg of her tour. “I knew that people would be going, ‘Uh, why?’ And I was not going to lie because there was nothing to be ashamed of. So I just decided to let everyone know about the cancer.
I look at that whole experience as a gift.
“I have been very open in the past,” Melissa explains. “I have been very truthful and I have found that when I am truthful, people don’t come looking for the truth. They leave me alone because there’s nothing to report.”
Melissa had surgery two days after her diagnosis, which was followed by radiation and chemotherapy. The chemotherapy, she admits, was the hardest part about her treatment. But she credits her successful recovery to the support from her two children and her partner, Tammy Lynn Michaels. “My kids were five and seven at the time and they went through this whole thing with me. Which I think was really empowering and very helpful – for them and me,” Melissa says. “And Tammy, I’m so fortunate and grateful that I have someone who loves me so much who saw me
through this whole thing. Who never once complained. She just said, ‘We’ll get through this.’”
Her greatest hits album, Greatest Hits – The Road Less Traveled, is scheduled for release in October and has some old favorites as well as some new tracks that hold special significance to her now that she has survived cancer. “I did a cover song of Tom Petty’s classic, Refugee. And that has meaning for me as a cancer survivor because it says you can be bigger than this, you can be bigger than this, you can be more powerful than this.
“Then I wrote a new song called, This Is Not Goodbye,” Melissa continues. “It was written for Tammy when we had to keep going back for chemotherapy. And I remember thinking, it’s so hard to not be available on any level for her – or my kids. It’s a song about having to go away, but saying I will return, I’m coming back, I’m not going away for good.”
Now, looking to the future, Melissa feels a profound change in her life that has redefined her outlook. Speaking about her cancer, she says, “I look at that whole experience as a gift because it gave me perspective that might have taken years to achieve,” Melissa observes. “Perspective on my career, about what’s important to me. That yes, my career’s important, I enjoy it. It’s part of me and it’s something that I do, but it does not need to be the only thing that I do. And that spending time with my family is the number one priority.”
This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, September/October 2005.