A Fearless Voice: More with Melissa Etheridge

Interview by Bonnie Siegler

Grammy- and Oscar-winning singer-songwriter Melissa Etheridge joined millions of women when, in October 2004, she discovered a lump in her breast during a routine self-exam. Ultimately, her battle with breast cancer led to unimaginable joy and peace in the life she shares with her four kids (ages 3 to 14) and partner, Tammy Etheridge. As she releases her 10th album, Fearless Love, the legendary 49-year-old rocker talks about concentrating on the now and being an advocate for her own health.

On her integrative regimen during chemo
During my chemo, I used medicinal marijuana and I had regular acupressure and lymphatic massage. The lymphatic system is like your filter, and the whole system runs very cleanly and smoothly. I had 15 lymph nodes removed. When you go in there and take stuff out then you run the risk of things getting clogged. Light massage in the lymphatic places—the armpits and neck—helps move the lymphatic fluids and keep them from stagnating.

On listening to her body
I’m at the point with my health that I no longer am living under the shadow of symptoms—it’s not like I have a chronic headache that I need to get rid of. I can feel when the energy is balanced and going through me cleanly. And I feel when there are blockages. I like to think that any kind of pain is your body saying, Hey, pay attention! There’s something off here. It’s important to get to a place where you understand your health. Your body is like a big, old, giant battery, and it’s up to us to keep the energy flowing through it.

On treating her health holistically
In ancient China, if you got sick, the doctors had to fix you and didn’t get paid until you were healthy again. But today, with the state of healthcare, we need to take charge of our own health—no one else can make you healthy. I don’t take over-the-counter medicines. If I have a headache, I check out my body and see what’s tightening up, because I believe headaches come from stress and tension. I also turn to what I’ve eaten, because if I’m indulging in chocolate, I might get a headache.

On the healing power of food
My diet and whole relationship with food completely changed after my cancer diagnosis. I understand now that food is fuel for your body and spirit. I realized I had to eat what I call closer-to-the ground foods. Now I get excited at the grocery store. I love to get lost in the produce department and find the freshest, most seasonal veggies and think about what I can create for my family. Taking responsibility for our health is a choice we make, and that choice starts with what we put in our bodies.

On making her whole life a mantra
I try to find tranquility everywhere I can. I do easy yoga three times a week and try to steal moments to sit in my backyard, just breathing and letting the sun hit my skin. Or I take myself to a mentally serene spot while driving on the freeway and just breathe. You need to turn off the radio, turn off the TV, quiet the chatter, because once you do, the peaceful stuff can come through. I don’t have a mantra that I repeat or anything like that—my whole life is a mantra. I try to walk my spiritual path every moment and in everything I do.

On looking at cancer in a new way
I actually tell people newly diagnosed with a life-changing health condition, Wow, great: Your body has reached this point where it’s telling you that you can’t go on like this anymore, and you have to change. I know that when my body did that, my life changed forever for the better. I’ve never been so happy and clear and strong and healthy, and that’s what’s lying in front of you. Because now you have the excuse you’ve been looking for to stop stressing yourself so much, stop requiring so much of yourself that you’re making yourself sick. It’s time to now say “No” to those things that you don’t want to do and say “Yes” to what you do want to be. You’ll look back on your disease and say, “I’m glad that happened to me.”

On how beating breast cancer changed her outlook
I believed, as most of us do, that we only have a few years to live, and in that time period, we’re supposed to grow up, find what we want to do, make money, buy things, have kids if you want, retire, and die. And if you make more money and buy more stuff, then you’ll be happy. That was completely shattered after I survived breast cancer. My life now is a constant experience of expanding my thinking and creating. I concentrate and focus on my life right now. I don’t think too far into the future.

On keeping the planet healthy
What we’re doing to our environment is what we do to ourselves. You can’t be healthy if the earth isn’t healthy. I buy certain cosmetics and cleaning products with the planet in mind. I choose soap and detergents that are plant derived and chorine free. Most people don’t really know that every time they wash dishes or clothes, chemical detergents go into the ground and surface waters. The products I choose to buy don’t break down the environment and are better for the planet. I also keep my own health in mind, and that’s why I buy only products that have no chemicals. Things that are healthy for me are, in turn, better for the environment. So when I think of my health first, I am choosing the environment.

On getting down and dirty
One of my favorite things to do is garden. Talk about tranquility—gardening is it! Earth constantly gives and sustains and nourishes. There’s just nothing like pulling something off the vine and eating it—I love it. We have a bunch of fruit trees, string beans, parsley, kale, and broccoli.

On changing the paradigm
Right now, we say we’re debating healthcare, but we’re really debating sickcare. We assume that getting sick is something that just happens to us. I love California because I have fruit trees in my backyard, and I can just pick an orange and eat it. There’s something about that: It was just on the tree, the sun was just shining on it, now the energy is going into my body, and I feel it. When we start making that connection and looking differently at the things that don’t serve that connection—packaged food mostly made of corn syrup—that’s when we’ll start to change the paradigm and stop buying the stuff that doesn’t feed our bodies.