IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Melissa Etheridge's brave comeback

In a "Dateline NBC" exclusive, Phillips sits down exclusively with rock musician Etheridge in her first interview since her breast cancer diagnosis in October 2004. Etheridge talks candidly about her illness, how difficult her treatment was, and how and why she decided to make such a courageous public comeback at the Grammy Awards.
/ Source: Dateline NBC

Melissa Etheridge describes chemotherapy as "hell." And she was right in the middle of it when she heard she'd been nominated for a Grammy. She figured this was one awards ceremony she'd have to sit out. But then her chemo treatment for breast cancer came to an end, and when she was invited to sing a tribute to a woman she considers a major influence, Etheridge decided she'd go to the Grammy's, with hair, or without.

Melissa Etheridge: “I didn't think, oh, I'm going to be brave and go do it. I thought, well, am I going to be well enough? Okay, I think I'll have enough energy. Yeah, I can do that, right. Maybe that's courageous.  I don't know. But it was just it's what I love to do.”

Stone Phillips: “It's something you had to do.”

Etheridge: “Yeah. I had to. I couldn't have sat here and watched someone else singing Janis Joplin's ‘Piece of My Heart.’ That'd have killed me.”

That was before cancer, before chemo, before this song became a new anthem for breast cancer survivors everywhere.

Phillips: “Are you surprised by the impact it had? How it moved people?”

Etheridge: “Yes. Yes, I'm definitely taken aback. I remember when I finally made the choice.  Yeah, I'm going to do it bald. And you know what? Maybe this'll help somebody who's sitting on chemo laying in bed and going, God, I'm bald. Isn't this weird? Maybe it'll help them feel a little better. I didn't know to what extent that would happen. But I'm honored.”

Phillips: “That song in particular, I mean, cancer is a heartbreaker itself.”

Etheridge: “Yeah.”

Phillips: “It tests people. It pushes people to the edge. How sorely tested have you been?”

Etheridge: “It was very hard. It was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life. Chemotherapy tests your sanity. Yet there is an amazing clarity to it that I'm grateful for.”

Phillips: “Pretty much cuts through everything.”

Etheridge: “Oh, you get a real clear sense of good and bad. Your own right and wrong.”

Phillips: “And what's important.”

Etheridge: “And what's important and what is real.”

Keeping it real is what Melissa Etheridge is all about. A plains girl from Leavenworth, Kansas, she's been more than a rock star since she very publicly came out as a lesbian in 1993, never hesitating to walk her talk. She got her first guitar at age eight and grew up listening to the Beatles and the Blues, to Bruce, and of course, Janis Joplin.

Years later, she would become famous for her own spirited live performances, that raspy rock voice and her soulful lyrics. Whether she's singing about love, loss, or her own sexuality, the songs tell her truth. And the truth is, lately, Etheridge had been really happy. After a painful split from a longtime partner five years ago, she had found love again with actress Tammy Lynn Michaels. You can hear it in her newest music.

She was singing those songs on the Canadian leg of her latest concert tour last October, feeling full of life when, at age 43, she found a lump in her left breast.

Etheridge: “It was rather large. And I didn't know why I hadn't noticed it the day before. But it was just this day that it was right here and very noticeable. And I touched it and there's something in your soul. You're like, this is different."

Phillips: “So you could feel it. Could you see it?”

Etheridge: “Yes, you could see it. And it was alarming because I hadn't seen it the day before.  And I didn't quite understand what it was.”

Phillips: “So this came up very, very suddenly?”

Etheridge: “Very suddenly. I had just had a physical two months before with a breast exam.”

Having lost an aunt and a grandmother to breast cancer, and her father to liver cancer, Etheridge has been vigilant about checkups and self exams. Now she knew she needed to get off the road and to a doctor. So after one more performance in Ottawa, she flew home to Los Angeles.”

Etheridge: “Immediately threw Tammy into the bathroom and said, look at this. And she was just-- it was astonishing how large it was.”

Phillips: “Over the next couple of days it had gotten even bigger?”

Etheridge: “Yeah. Yes. And my children could see it.”

Etheridge has a son and daughter from a previous relationship. Their biological father is fellow rock legend David Crosby.

Etheridge: “Tammy and I talked about it, and we decided because they're eight and six -- to say, we need to see if it has a cold. Because if this lump has a cold, it might spread to the rest of the body.  And so we need to take it out if it does. And so I got the biopsy, which is no pleasant thing either, and then the next day I was actually able to get the diagnosis of yes, it is breast cancer.”

Phillips: “So instead of staying on tour and going back on stage, you went into the operating room?”

Etheridge: “Which is another interesting aspect of breast cancer is they can't tell you exactly what's going on until they open you up. So they found my tumor.  It was a four-centimeter tumor. It's a Stage II, very grateful. And it did go into one lymph node, into the sentinel node. They took it out. That was positive. So they moved on and took out 14 other lymph nodes which were negative. Which means that, yes, I had a tumor. It got on the ramp. But not to the rest of the superhighway of lymph nodes, which is how cancer travels. Lymph nodes and bloodstream.”

Phillips: “And following the surgery, chemotherapy.”

Etheridge: “Yes. It's the closest to death I have ever been. The chemotherapy takes you as far down into hell as you've ever, ever been.”

The chemo took a heavy toll; there were days she could barely get out of bed. She says she would never have made it through without Tammy, the woman she has called her wife since they exchanged vows in a commitment ceremony in September 2003.

Etheridge: “When I got home from my surgery, in the bedroom, there was a beautiful flower arrangement. And all it said was, ‘In sickness and in health.’ You know, and she meant it. There were days upon days where I couldn't make a sound. Where she would tell me she loved me, and I couldn't even tell her that back. And she would say, ‘I know you love me. And I love you.’ And she would just lay there. Because you can't move. Every cell in your body is aching.”

Phillips: “From the chemotherapy.”

Etheridge: “From the chemotherapy, yeah. Yeah.”

We asked Tammy to join us for a portion of the interview and it quickly became clear that some of Melissa's best medicine comes from her 30-year-old partner.

Etheridge: “Oh, this one has a gift of humor and comedy. When I was diagnosed with cancer, she'd say, well, hello, cancer pants… And shaving my head was another opportunity for—“

Phillips: “Great comedic opportunity—“

Tammy Lynn Michaels: ”We had to get the lesson as we shaved it into different mullets. We had to teach the children what not to have with their hair.”

Etheridge: “And for my son, I put a new mohawk for awhile. And actually using humor to bring them to the process of the Momma that you know with her golden mane is going to lose her hair. You know, when I finally did lose my hair and she shaved it, and I had a couple hairs here-- what did you call me, honey?”

“Captain Steubing. Ever seen the ‘Love Boat’ where he just had a couple right there on the side and then he was shiny? She was Captain Steubing for a while.”

Etheridge: “Laughing is a medicine. It releases this amazing stuff. And she would make me laugh and bring this incredible gift to me every single day.”

Those moments of laughter were a lifeline during her treatment. Etheridge was scheduled to undergo eight rounds of what's called dose-dense chemotherapy, a shorter course of treatment that can be highly successful, but painfully intense.

Phillips: “What do you remember most about the chemotherapy?”

Michaels: “When it first goes in your body, it makes your eyes get all glassy, and I couldn't really see in her anymore. So by the time we would get her home from chemo… her eyes would be very foggy. I would look at that and I would know very soon on she was going down again.”

By January, Etheridge had completed the first four rounds of chemo, and was started on the next drug, Taxol. But immediately, there was a problem.

Etheridge: “It affected my muscles and bones. And there's a chance of neuropathy with Taxol, which is where you lose feeling in your extremities. You know, fingers and toes. And the minute I started losing feeling in my fingertips I threw a flag and went, ‘wait wait wait wait wait.’ This is my livelihood you're talking about."

Phillips: “Guitar player.”

Etheridge: “Yeah. Yeah. As a guitar player.”

After consulting with her doctors, she decided that between her surgery, two months of chemo, and radiation treatment, which she's currently undergoing, she could beat the cancer without the Taxol.

Etheridge: “That was my own personal choice. To me, it’s not worth it. So, I stopped early.”

And that choice created an opportunity, because once she stopped chemotherapy, she started to get her strength back -- and the Grammy Awards were just around the corner. Even though she'd been nominated for her song '”Breathe,” she hadn't planned on attending the Grammys. But as she began to feel better, she thought, maybe she'd go after all.

Etheridge: “But I didn't want to just go and just go. I thought, you know, I'd like to go if there's something special. Well, my manager then calls me and says, I think I got something special. And he said, they-- the Grammys called, and they're giving Janis Joplin the Lifetime Achievement Award. And they would like you to sing ‘Piece of my Heart.’ And I went, holy cow. Well, yeah, that's special.”

It's a song that's always been close to her heart, as we found out sitting in her backyard, rocking with her favorite guitar. How she did it, in front of millions of people on music's biggest night?

Etheridge: “It was very special that I had been presented with a day, that I could come back into this entertainment world, and show everyone that you are back and okay, and thought, okay. I'm going to do this. And I'm not gonna be afraid of the truth. The truth is, yes I had cancer. Yes, I got it out of me.  Yes, I went through chemotherapy. Yes, I'm bald.”

In an image-crazed business, it was a big decision.

Etheridge: “I remember telling the camera crew, saying, like, I'm going to do this bald. So, if you need any special lighting, for this big old shiny head that's going to be shining, I need you to know. And they were like, okay. And they were all ready for it.”

Phillips: “Did you ever consider wearing a wig?”

Etheridge: “Oh, I never considered wearing a wig. I can't imagine putting a wig on. And I couldn't imagine a wig staying on my head as I was flying around that stage. I was going to go on stage and sing a rock song. I'm going to sweat, it's comfortable.”

Arriving at the Grammys, with Tammy at her side, Melissa wasn't sure how people would react.

Phillips: “Nobody had seen you. There'd been no pictures, nothing.”

Etheridge: ”No nothing. And I stepped out, and there was just sort of this wonderful, warm applause. And I was oh, and I thought for a minute I was going to lose it, thinking, oh, what am I doing? This is really intense." 

But the jitters were gone as fellow singer Joss Stone called her to the stage.

Etheridge: “I knew my own love of performing. And I knew that my own adrenaline could absolutely carry me through for two and a half minutes. I knew I could do it. And I wanted to do it.”

Phillips: “And those lyrics. I mean, that song… Talk about showing everybody, baby, that a woman can be tough.”

Etheridge: “I didn't even think about that, until I was performing it. And I think—“

Phillips: “Are you kidding-- really?”

Etheridge: “Well, I'd gone back and looked at the-- because I TiVoed it, and I look at the part where I sing 'and a woman can be tough' and I like roll my eyes and I remember singing it, going, oh, yeah, I guess that has a little double meaning here."

The audience was blown away. Her voice sure, her look, stunning.

Phillips: “I thought you looked just beautiful. How did you feel you looked?”

Etheridge: “There's a real -- I don't know if it's called beauty. It's hard for me to step into that word. But there's a radiance. There's something.”

Phillips: “During the performance, how did you feel? Were you tired? Were you concerned that your energy was going to fade?”

Etheridge: “Because I was moving and singing in such a hard song, that by the second verse, I got tired. I was like, uh oh. And I thought, wow."

Phillips: “And you got the big scream coming.”

Etheridge: “And I've got the big scream coming. The scream was so cathartic. It was such-- it was the release. Believe me! I mean, rock and roll is cathartic, anyway. Full on.  But to be able to throw my head back, and scream the last six months out of me, I'm completely grateful for that.”

In a way, Etheridge says, her battle with cancer has been a gift. 

Etheridge: “I have never known such love, and good energy that is coming to me every day.  Every moment.”

Phillips: “That's the gift.”

Etheridge: “A wonderful gift. I've changed my lifestyle. I have taken what I consider poisonous thing, out of my life. Out of my food, out of my work, out of my social circle, out of everything. Because I want a clean, cancer-free life. And I believe I can have that.”

Phillips: “Even as a rock star.”

Etheridge: “Even as a rock star. I know. It's a funny profession. But even as a rock star. Yeah.”

Phillips: “Are you cancer-free today?”

Etheridge: “Yes. Yes, I am. In every detectable way. And in every knowing way. In my heart and my mind I know that I'm cancer free.”

Phillips: “Well, here's to healing, and here's to the healing power of rock and roll.”

Etheridge: “Oh yes. That's for sure.”

Her latest CD is called, "Lucky Live." And that's exactly how Melissa Etheridge feels these days, as a breast cancer survivor.