Melissa Etheridge on Surviving Cancer
Photo credit: Mark Seliger
By now there isn’t a lesbian alive — well, maybe there’s one in some remote corner of Kuala Lumpur — who doesn’t know who Melissa Etheridge is. She’s the rock star who stole Bruce Springsteen’s crown, the lesbian who parented two babies conceived with David Crosby’s seed, the wife of a twentysomething TV star and the chick who rocked the dyke world when she came out and declared she was, indeed, a lesbian. And most recently, Etheridge became the face of breast cancer: the ultimate symbol of survival as encapsulated in a woman who defiantly shaved her head, went through chemo and then went on to give the most talked- about television performance of the year (at the 2005 Grammy Awards). We recently caught up with her to find out how cancer has changed (almost) everything.
Let’s get right to the big question. You’re a changed woman, aren’t you?
Well, come on, if that doesn’t change you, I don’t know what will.
When you were first diagnosed, what were your initial thoughts?
Looking back on it, it kind of makes me laugh, because I was so — just last night I was telling Tammy, I said, “God, I didn’t realize how stressed I was in my life.” I really thought I was a cool cucumber: “No, this is great, I’m handling all this.” I didn’t realize how much stress I had in my life. I mean, I’m on the verge of being a workaholic. I love my career … so it was great and I’m grateful for it. … I was touring … making this happen and making that happen … and then it’s like life taps you on the shoulder and goes, “Excuse me, um, you’ve got cancer — you gotta sit out for a while.”
I’ve been working since I was 11 years old — 11 years old — I have worked my butt off. And I remember going, “Cancer? Cancer? What?” This was not in the plans … and for the first time in my life, I just took a big giant eraser and went whoosh and wiped the whole slate clean and I said, I have to lie down now. I have to be still.
I’ve never been still. And I tell you, we should take time to be still. It’s really made me get quite a perspective on life.
Did it change how you’ve been thinking about what’s important?
You know what? It did. It took a lot of the fear out. I think because I’ve been so driven since I was about 11 years old, I really believed that my career is where all of my happiness would lie, and all my definition would be my career. And when I stopped and stepped out of it [I] realized the love of my wife and my children and my close friends is the thing that life is made of. When I step back into it, it is much easier to say no to most everything, to just go, “No, I don’t have to speak to everyone. I don’t have to be nice.” I’ll be nice … but I don’t have to sell parts of me. So it took the fear out.
Do you have a new definition of yourself?
Yeah, it’s a switching of priorities. When my mind goes to calculate things … I think of my health, my love, my life, my family, first. Then, OK, well, if it passes that, then is it something I want to do, work on, be? And that’s different: That filter, that priority is different.
I think a lot of people probably need that kind of a wake-up call. I’m certainly the same. I’m just so defined by my career that I would like to be still.
Down here in L.A., that’s all we are defined by: “Well, what do you do?” And I think especially … lesbians, we’re like, we must rise above all. We’re [such] overachievers that we’re running ourselves into the ground. We have so much more to prove.
Well, will it be hard to get you back on the road?
I think it might be. Even though what I love most in my career is being onstage performing for people — that’s sheer bliss — but everything else around it, the traveling, the being away from my home, that’s really hard work. I’m hoping I will be out next summer, because I think I’d start to go crazy if I wasn’t, but I’m not going to go out for months on end anymore like I used to. I’m looking for a television show because I’d like to do more things around that.
Didn’t you have a show in the works?
Like the week before [I was diagnosed]! It’s still in the works. Bless their hearts, they didn’t run away and drop me and go, “Ah, cancer!” We’ve been developing, and it’s really going to be powerful. We’re just getting to the point where we’ll probably shoot the pilot in February, so it’ll be a next-year thing, but I’m really excited about the people who I’m working with.
It doesn’t mean that I won’t be making music. I want my fans to know … music is a part of me; it’s like breathing. I am going to be writing and performing forever, just not quite as often as I have been.
I’m sure this was devastating for your wife, Tammy Lynn Michaels.
Unbelievable. That woman is the finest human being on earth. Her love, her caring, her priority — instant! Poor thing, [the] crazy thing was she got that part on NBC on Committed. It was funny, she was great — boom! I go down. And I’d be at chemotherapy, and she’d have to go to work. And you can see — if you watch the show — you could see the last few shows they wrote her less and less because poor thing, she was just devastated. I would never want to go through this with anyone else. She’s just an angel.
I know you talk in one of your songs about going away — about how she’s watching you go away.
Probably the hardest time was the chemotherapy treatment because she would see — you get the poison put in you, then you go away, your whole body shuts down. And I would lie there for days and I couldn’t even speak to her. And she hated seeing me in such pain. It was very lonely. I couldn’t even listen to the television — she would sit by candlelight and read magazines for hours, just [beside] me.
I hear a lot of rumors that there’s a baby in your future.
We are talking, and talking, and talking, and you guys will be the 10th or 11th people to know.
Your publicist Marcel always has to come out and say, “There’s no baby yet.”
What I did on [Extra] was go, “Yeah, we’ve been thinking about it,” because we were thinking about it and we’re still thinking about it. But they took that as some baby announcement and … I was like, “Oh my god, Marcel, put it out! Put it out!”
Was it difficult to put a greatest-hits album together while fighting breast cancer? It seems like you must have really confronted your mortality.
All of that. It was really mind-blowing to go through all of my work, to really listen to it and let it sink in. Just what I’ve been doing, what I’ve done, my body of work, my impact — then to treat it with the respect of putting a compilation together. It was very hard because if you were to go to any fan, they would come up with a completely different set of [favorite] songs. I feel very fortunate that I’m not an artist that just has three or four songs that people like.… That’s great, but they’re certainly going to have a different opinion on what my greatest hits are.
It’s interesting what you included and what you chose not to include. I bet that was a really tough decision.
Yeah, it was. And I really had to just get it down to me, and go, you know what? I don’t want to put “I Want to Be in Love” on; it didn’t move me. It meant a lot to me — I mean, it brought me my love — but I wanted people to hear the song “Lucky,” which is not one of my greatest hits. … I feel like that is a song that speaks to where I am and really speaks especially to that moment in my life.
I love that you included “You Can Sleep While I Drive.”
Yeah, I think that’s one of my fans’ favorites. I know it’s a crowd pleaser whenever I play it anywhere, around the world.
The year that my partner and I got together, 15 years ago, we played that song at least 100 times on our way across the country. Can you tell me a little bit more about writing that song?
Oh gosh, I wrote that song in 1988. I was on my first tour in England — in Europe, actually. I was touring solo, and I was very, very lonely. I had never been out of the country, and I was out for six weeks. It was like this crazy time. I was doing my writing thing, and I was writing about a cross-country trip that I had taken in ’87 … before my first album came out. I had done a couple of women’s music festivals and … I literally opened up Gay USA and found coffeehouses and women’s bars and stuff, and called them up and said, “Hey, can I come play in your bar for a night?” And they said, “Yeah, sure.” And I said, “For $50? Or $100?” And they were like, “Yeah.”
I just set up this tour cross-country, and it was really fun, and my girlfriend at the time and I went and did that, and it was sort of a magical time, when you drive cross-country. [Then] two years later, I’m on tour by myself in England. I’m missing America. I’m totally thinking of, you know, biscuits and gravy, and just missing America. And I’m realizing that the relationship that I had is starting to unravel, so there’s kind of this longing, and that’s where the whole song came from.
Can you tell me about choosing to record “Refugee”?
Well, I wanted to do a cover song. I think that there are certain times in an artist’s life when they tip their hat to someone else, and they pick up another song that wasn’t theirs. I wanted to do that and I thought that the Greatest Hits was an opportunity to do that. Tom Petty — I’ve been a huge fan of his. The song “Refugee” … I used to play that in the bars in the ’80s, and I felt that it was very similar to my own style of writing. And the meaning of the song — the meanings that I could hang on … “Everybody has to fight to be free.” Yeah, you know what? Yeah, you’re gay. Bang, you know, that’s your lot in life. But you know what? You don’t have to live like a refugee, you can live truthfully. You can live out and do it. Yeah, you’ve got breast cancer? Fight. Come on. Step up. Do it. That’s sort of where that song’s at with me.
“This Is Not Goodbye” is really emotional. Did you write that during chemo?
I started to. In my cycle of chemotherapy, maybe the last two days before I would go in for another treatment, I would be well enough to be up and walking around the house and actually playing the piano, and I started to think: Oh God, tomorrow I’m going to get that shit put back in me again. And I started forming the song … in my head. I would never have enough energy or time to actually write it, not until I was finally done. After the treatments, I started to really sit down and write.
During your battle with breast cancer, you’ve been a huge inspiration for other people affected by breast cancer. What kinds of stories do you hear from them?
Oh my God, you have no idea how many people have been affected by breast cancer in the world. I constantly have people coming up to me — either they have been affected, [or] their mothers, sisters, daughters. Cancer just in general out there in the whole world is crazy. All the time. I’m honored.
Did those stories help inspire the song “I Run for Life”?
Yes. Absolutely. When Ford asked me if I would write a song for the Race for the Cure, I was like God, there are so many people that are running this race … and I wanted to sing about that.
Of course, everyone is still talking about the Grammy Awards. Did you realize what a pivotal moment that was for you at the time?
I had no idea. The night before I was sitting in the bathtub with Tammy … and I said, “God honey, I just hope nobody makes fun of me.” I knew that it would be interesting that I was bald, but I had no idea — I think it’s because my world was so small then. I hadn’t been out into the world … for months. I had been very sheltered. I remember when I was rehearsing with Joss [Stone] backstage, I was telling her, “You know, look, I’ve played the Grammys twice before, and it’s just a horrible place to play. Nobody cares. They’re all jaded. They’re not going to stand up.”
I said, “So don’t take it personally when nobody stands up.” And then my guitar player looked at me with this funny look on his face, and he said, “Melissa, you have no idea what you’re about to do, do you?” And I said, “What do you mean?” And he said, “Do you really think that people aren’t going to stand up after you sing this song?” And I said, “Well, yeah, you know, it’s the Grammys.”
He just shook his head, and the minute the song ended, there was this huge wave — not only were people just on their feet, they were on their feet when I walked out — but there was this huge wave of appreciation just lifting me up. And I turned around and looked at him, and went, “Oh, that’s what you meant. OK.”
No, I did not have any idea. I didn’t know.
That’s amazing to have something that resonates so much with people and to not have any expectation of it.
It was kind of an example of that instant good karma that I kind of got when I decided to come out years ago. I think [it comes] when you step up and step into your truth. Over the years I have had huge rewards from that. People — teenagers coming up and saying, “Thank you for coming out, you saved my life.” Just amazing things that by deciding to be in my truth, again, at the Grammys and saying, “Hey, I just went through treatment for breast cancer. I’m bald — that’s my truth. I’m gonna sing you a song.”
Because it was projected around the world instantly to billions of people, I got an instant karmic reaction to that. Much the same as this sort of long reaction that I got to coming out.
I just interviewed Ant, the host of Celebrity Fit Club, and I asked him who the sexiest gay woman in Hollywood was. Without a pause he said, “Melissa Etheridge.” And he went on and on about you coming out bald and how great you look with your short hair.
The funny thing was that I thought for so long — I had like a secret wish that I could just cut my hair and do a butch sort of do and never color it again and be all gray and butch. I always had this [fantasy] that someday I am going to run off to Vermont and just be butch. And I always thought that if my hair was this short that I’d just be just intolerably butch. And exactly the opposite happened. I have never been so feminine. It makes me chuckle … what took me so long? I had to lose my hair before I saw that maybe it was a crutch.
Yeah, I think that a lot of women use their hair as a crutch actually, for a lot of different things.
Man, that’s true.
What did you think the first time you saw yourself bald?
Well unfortunately, the first time I saw myself bald I was just sick as a dog from chemo.
So you couldn’t care less.
Exactly. It was the last thing on my mind. Tammy, on the other hand, she was the one who shaved my head bald. Sweet, sweet thing. Just nobody wants to have to do that to their partner. But my hair was just falling out in clumps, so she shaved my head and I remember she bathed me afterwards, and she said, “Honey, I don’t know if you are going to believe me, but you are gorgeous.” She said, “You are astoundingly, femininely gorgeous.”
Of course I was all ravaged from chemo, but she kept telling me just how beautiful I was, which really helped.
What part about being 44 years old is different than what you had imagined?
[Laughs.] Everything. Everything. Are you talking about in my 20s — what I would think of my 40s? Because [then] I was so career-driven, I really defined myself and defined my future in career terms. I really didn’t realize the capability and the possibility of love and happiness. And that is probably the biggest surprise. I am just overly abundant in love and happiness. And that’s the biggest surprise, just how wonderful that is.
Do you ever want to go back and tell that 20-year-old —
Oh, I do, I do. I want to say that your 30s, it’s gonna suck, man, but you went through it.
And then it’ll be better than ever.