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Melissa Etheridge's anthem of hope

If anyone can turn a bout with breast cancer into an anthem of hope, it’s Melissa Etheridge. Etheridge is now cancer-free, and feeling stronger than ever. Since October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, it's the perfect time, we thought, to check in with a survivor who was diagnosed a year ago this month.

If anyone can turn a bout with breast cancer into an anthem of hope, it’s Melissa Etheridge. Etheridge is now cancer-free, and feeling stronger than ever. Since October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, it's the perfect time, we thought, to check in with a survivor who was diagnosed a year ago this month.

Eight months ago, Etheridge talked for the first time about her battle against breast cancer. In a recent interview, she reveals new details about her struggle, including her decision to use a controversial drug to help her get through chemotherapy.

Stone Phillips, anchor: The day you were diagnosed with cancer is not one to celebrate. But it’s been a year. Is this a happy anniversary?Melissa Etheridge: Happy? Yeah. Happy time to look back and go, “Whoa, look at this year. What a year. My goodness. We can get through anything.” Phillips: The hair is back.Etheridge: How ‘bout that?

Last February, she took the stage at the Grammy awards without any of her trademark blonde hair and blew the crowd away.

Her performance was another coming out for the rock star and gay icon. She showed the world that she was also a cancer survivor. She’d just completed 10 agonizing weeks of chemotherapy. And was still getting radiation treatment. Yet, somehow, she summoned the strength to smile and scream.

Three days after that showstopper, at her home in Los Angeles, Etheridge spoke for the first time about the tumor she discovered in the shower last fall, and the treatment that followed. Then, she called it "the closest to death" she's ever been. "The chemotherapy takes you as far down into hell as you’ve ever, ever been."

She said she couldn’t have gotten through it without the woman she calls her wife, actress, Tammy Lynn Michaels.

Etheridge (from interview eight months ago): This one has a gift of humor and comedy.  When I was diagnosed with cancer she’d say, “Well, hello cancer pants!”  Tammy Lynn Michaels: It’s the truth. Etheridge:  And when I finally did lose my hair and she’d shaved it and I had a couple of hairs here, what’d you call me?Michaels: Captain Stubing. Remember from the Love Boat where he just had a couple right down the side and then he was just shiny.

But as they told us back then, there were times during chemotherapy when laughter couldn’t lessen the pain.

Michaels (from interview eight months ago): 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’d get her home from chemo, I would look at that and know, very soon on, she’s going down again.Etheridge: 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.

She may not have been able to make a sound, but she wrote a song, called “This is Not Goodbye.” And sitting down with Etheridge again, eight months later, she played it for us.

Etheridge: It was a song that came to me while I was on chemo. I was thinking, “Wow! It’s like every time I was just getting better and I’m starting to come up, I know that in two days I’m going to get that stuff put back in me and I’m going to go away.” Even though I’m in the same room with my loved one, I can’t talk to her, I can’t move, she can’t touch me, it hurts to touch me, and it’s really, really hard, so I wanted to write a song about it. “I know it’s hard for you. But I’ll be back. This not goodbye. I’m not checking out here, at all.”Phillips: No primal screams, but how good does it feel to be singing that song knowing that you’re nowhere close to goodbye?Etheridge: Real good.

She was one of some 200,000 American women diagnosed with breast cancer last year. And like so many others, she knows the cancer could return. So, for at least five years, she’ll be taking a daily dose of the anti-cancer drug, Tamoxifen. She’s changed her diet, eating less junk food and is doing her best to cut down on something else: stress. Melissa believes a history of cancer in her family isn’t the only explanation for why she got sick.   

Etheridge: I think I’ve been on a path ever since I was born, a path of high stress.  I put myself, my career, it was a big old juicy carrot right in front of me for all of my life. I started playing in bars when I was eleven.  And I never stopped. Until I was 43 years old, and diagnosed with breast cancer was the first time I canceled everything, and laid in my room for weeks.

It took cancer for Melissa to stop putting her career and a lifetime of pleasing others, ahead of her own well-being.

Etheridge: Cancer’s like the ultimate excuse. Who’s gonna say, “Oh, no, you have to show up for this one?” “Hey, I got cancer.  I can’t be there.” It’s the ultimate eraser.Phillips: So, the diagnosis instantly vented all that stress?Etheridge: Oh, yeah.  Instantly.  I mean, it's like you just blow up.  It’s the most stressful thing ever. "Oh, my God. I might die." Phew.

Etheridge: And all those fears that you have of, “If I don’t work this hard, and if I don’t make this, if I don’t do that, oh, I’m gonna what? You’re gonna what? What if something horrible ever happened to me?” Well, something horrible happened to me. And you know what?  My life became very simple. And it cleared up. And I had a completely blank slate and I can build it now the way I want to.

In the life she’s building now, Melissa is making time to speak out and to raise money for the fight against breast cancer.

But there’s one part of her story she has never talked about publicly until now: A controversial choice she made to help with the harsh side effects of chemo.

Etheridge: I decided instead of signing up for the drugs that— well, there’s the drug that you take for the pain. But that constipates you. So, you have to take the constipation drug. But then that actually gives you diarrhea. So, you need a little diarrhea drug. Instead of taking five or six of the prescriptions, I decided to go a natural route and smoke marijuana.Phillips: Medicinal marijuana.Etheridge: Medicinal marijuana. Absolutely. Every doctor I talked to that I asked about it said that’s the best thing to do. The doctors know.Phillips: You spoke to your doctors about using marijuana?Etheridge: Oh, yeah. From the surgeons to the oncologists to the radiation. Every single one was, “Oh, yeah. That’s the best help for the effects of chemotherapy.” 

While the medical community remains divided, California is one of 10 states that allows seriously ill people to use marijuana, with a doctor’s recommendation. But federal law prohibits the drug under any circumstances. So, Melissa’s doctors didn’t actually write a prescription.  And Melissa used it, despite the risk of federal prosecution. 

DATELINE NBC -- NBC News -- Pictured: (l-r) Stone Phillips, Melissa Ethridge -- Breast cancer survivor and rock musician, Melissa Etheridge, sits down exclusively with \"Dateline's\" Stone Phillips to discuss publicly for the first time specifics about her breast cancer treatment, and how her battle with breast cancer inspired many songs on her new album, \"The Road Less Traveled.\" -- NBC Universal Photo

Etheridge: If they really wanted to come get me really, I mean, there’s so much more going on. And I just—no, I didn’t worry. But it was worth it.

Smoking the marijuana proved too harsh, so early on, she switched to a vaporizer to inhale it. She says it eased her pain, restored her appetite and lifted her depression.

Phillips: How often were you using it?Etheridge: Oh, every day. I was doing a lot of it at the time, for my pain and for my symptoms. And the minute I didn’t feel it, it I stopped.Phillips: As a rock star, your position on this does not come as a complete surprise.Etheridge: I know, I know. Phillips: Do you worry at all that talking about this from a medicinal standpoint might encourage recreational use? That what somebody hears is, “This takes away pain. This is—this brings comfort.”  Etheridge: Do I worry that it will be abused? Yeah. I mean, Vicodin is abused.  Everything that brings pain relief is abused. Yeah. But does that mean because Vicodin is abused, do they keep it away from people? No.They prescribe it. Put the laws on it, prescribe it.Phillips: Have you thought about being more vocal in the medicinal marijuana movement?Etheridge: Well, I guess I am now. Yes.

Melissa has always followed her truth, no matter where it takes her. And often it’s the road less traveled. In fact, that’s the title of her latest album, released this month. It’s a nod to the Robert Frost poem about diverging roads and the choices that define us.

Phillips: So, for you, the roads that diverged were, were what?Etheridge:  Well, I think that starts in high school. I saw two roads. I could stay in Kansas. I could take the road that people in my hometown would take. You go to college. You get a husband. You get married. That was one road. Or I’m going to go to L.A. I’m going to, you know, I’m going to go for the craziness. And I took that road.OK, I met lots of gay people in Hollywood. We were all very, very quiet about it in Hollywood. We didn’t say anything. But you know what? I don’t want to take that road. I wanna be myself. I took that road.Wow. Oh, I got breast cancer. You know what? I could shrink away and tell everybody to leave me alone and just not say anything about it, say I’m taking a little vacation and go through this myself. Or you know what? I could be open about this. And I could let it change my life, change me for the better. I’m gonna take this road.

This past summer, Melissa traveled a lot of roads in an RV. It was a coast to coast tour of America—a special treat for her two children and for Tammy, who’d kept her vow to be there for Melissa in sickness and in health.    

Phillips: So, let me get this straight, was six weeks in an RV across country with the kids, her way of thanking you for all your love and support? Michaels: Yes. That was my dream. It was my dream. After she was done, she said, “Let’s go on a vacation. Where do you want to go? Anywhere. Anything.  Let’s go.” I said, “Baby, get me one of them big ol' RV’s. And you can get me outta here.” You can get me out of this town. And we took off.

Etheridge: We’re from the Midwest and a good RV trip is the goal in your life.Michaels: It was the best!

They visited their hometowns—Melissa’s in Kansas and Tammy’s in Indiana. They spent a day at Dollywood in the Smoky Mountains, and drove all the way to the Big Apple. 

Etheridge: It was great to feel in control, having been so out of control, of my body, of my life.  Being in control, driving, being in charge of taking care of things: “What’s the next meal? Where are we going? Where are we staying? Getting people there safe.”Phillips: So, in your case, RV sort of stands for "recovery vehicle"?Etheridge: Yes. Very much so. 

While on the road, Melissa wrote that anthem of hope for cancer patients and their families. Her message of fierce optimism is delivered the best way she knows how—by singing straight from the gut.

Phillips: Music remains the mission?Etheridge: Oh yeah. Music and living.

As the lyrics to one of her songs goes: “I run for hope, I run to feel, I run for the truth and all that is real, I run for your mother, your sister, your wife, I run for you and me, my friend... I run for life.”