Melissa Etheridge: Not afraid of anything
For most breast cancer victims, the thought of showing themselves without hair is excruciatingly painful. But after being diagnosed with breast cancer, rocker Melissa Etheridge put an end to the stigma surrounding breast cancer-induced baldness when she performed without hair, eyebrows and eyelashes at the 2005 Grammys. Etheridge, the winner of two Grammys and one Academy Award, was herself battling breast cancer. She spoke to Metro about her darkest moments, why marijuana helped her and how she told her children about her illness.
Do you feel that your cancer is part of the past, or does it still affect you?
It doesn’t affect me physically any more, but it affects the way I live my whole life today. The choices I make, the food I eat — everything is influenced by my breast cancer.
What was your darkest moment while battling the tumor?
The doctors got the tumor out. It took two operations, but then it was gone. It was the chemotherapy that was the worst. Essentially they poison your whole body until you’re almost dead. It’s incredibly painful and you feel that you’re actually almost dead.
On the positive side, has breast cancer given you any creative impulses?
Everything I’ve ever done since being diagnosed with breast cancer has been influenced by it! You face the fear of your own mortality. When I was diagnosed I started thinking more spiritually and emotionally, both in my personal life and in my work as an artist. Having breast cancer has taught me not to be afraid of anything.
Women with breast cancer often get depressed over losing both their breasts and their hair, but you famously performed bald while undergoing chemotherapy. What made you decide to do it?
When I got the call saying I’d be performing at the Grammys I thought to myself, “Wait a minute, I’m bald!” I called some friends, and they all encouraged me to do it. I had thought it would feel a bit strange, but it didn’t.
You’ve said that you used and still use medical marijuana. How does it help you?
The first step after you’re diagnosed is that the doctors give you steroids, but that makes you constipated, so they give you another drug for that, but that drug has side effects, too. In the end, you’re on five, six drugs and still feel miserable. I thought, there’s this plant that gives you no side effects except making you hungry, which is good. It makes you happy, too. Medical marijuana made a huge difference for me. I still use it against stress. Stress gives me heartburn and the acid in my throat means I couldn’t perform unless I used medical marijuana.
What don’t men understand about breast cancer?
How it affects your self-image and the fears about how the disease will affect you as a woman.
Did you tell your children that you had a deadly disease?
Yes. I was able to tell them about every step, including the operations and the chemotherapy. My experience is that if you tell children the facts without fear, they deal with very well with it.
If you had died from breast cancer, what would you have wanted your legacy to be?
I’d have wanted people to think of me as a person who spoke the truth.