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Sheryl Crow and Melissa Etheridge Beat Cancer and Heartbreak

The music legends are now teaching us a thing or two about living with joy

Melissa Etheridge and Sheryl Crow pose, Sheryl Crow and Melissa Etheridge Beat Cancer and Heartbreak

Nino Muñoz

Music legends Melissa Etheridge and Sheryl Crow beat cancer.

En español l They've been good friends since 1988, two Midwestern girls making their way in a male-dominated industry. Born just nine months apart in neighboring states — Sheryl Crow in tiny Kennett, Mo., and Melissa Etheridge in Leavenworth, Kan. — they first met at the Los Angeles Sports Arena during Michael Jackson's Bad concert tour. Backstage, Crow, then a backup singer for the Gloved One, approached Etheridge, whom critics had compared to Janis Joplin and Bruce Springsteen when her first album came out that spring, and gushed, "I'm a huge fan of your record!"

"It was such a lovely surprise," Etheridge remembers, "and one of the first times someone whose work I admired was already an admirer of my work."

Fast-forward 20-some years. Etheridge, 53, sits at a table next to Crow in Los Angeles, sipping on cranberry juice and spearing pink grapefruit from a bowl, recalling those days. "That was back when we were young," she says.

"Back when we were cool," Crow, 52, cracks.

The two are dressed in T-shirts, jeans and boots. "We have had parallel lives in some ways," Crow muses. And it's true. Songwriters and performers, they both have risen to the top of their game professionally. (Crow has won nine Grammys and sold 35 million records, and Etheridge has five platinum albums and two Grammys to her credit.) They are doting mothers — Crow to two boys, ages 4 and 7, and Etheridge to four children, the eldest 17 — though neither has given birth. And both have publicly endured a series of difficult challenges. They've gone through traumatic breakups; Crow announced the end of her five-month engagement to cyclist Lance Armstrong in 2006, and Etheridge split from two of her long-term partners — Julie Cypher in 2000 and Tammy Lynn Michaels in 2010.

Most significantly, they've both stared down an ominous adversary that strikes almost 300,000 American women a year: breast cancer. Etheridge learned of her diagnosis in 2004, at 43; Crow learned in 2006, at 44. The two women now say that battling the disease and coming out on the other side deeply transformed them, shaping them into who they are today: survivors, role models and advocates for social awareness and change.

For Etheridge, it began one October day as she was on tour in Ottawa, Ontario. While taking a shower, she felt a lump in her breast. "I was like, 'Whoa!' " she remembers. "And it was large! That little voice in the back of my head started going, 'Is it cancer? Your father died of cancer. Your aunt died of cancer. Your grandmother. Your mother had cancer. Your cousin. Cancer. Cancer.' You just can't quiet the voice." But she tried, telling herself, "No, it's a cyst."

By that point in her life, Etheridge had already braved her share of hardships. Though she was, Etheridge says, "a very good kid" — she started writing songs on her guitar at age 8, and in high school became "the band and theater geek" — she had a dark secret. In her 2001 memoir, The Truth Is … , Etheridge wrote that her older sister, Jennifer, sexually abused her between ages 6 and 11. (The revelation tore up the family, and today Etheridge and Jennifer no longer speak.) Raised, Etheridge adds, with very little affection from her mother, she began yearning for the company of women in adolescence and, by age 16, realized that she wanted intimacy with women, too.

She can be lighthearted about it now. As Foreigner's Cold as Ice comes over the sound system during our interview, Etheridge sings along. "That's what my last boyfriend said to me," she reveals, laughing. "I was 15. He didn't understand why I was cold as ice. Whenever I hear that song now I think, 'I'm not cold; I'm just gay.' "

But at the time, the word "lesbian" terrified her, as did her feelings. "I hope it's better for gay youth today," she says, "but, boy, when I was a kid, it was a dark tunnel to look down."

On the eve of the release of her first album, Etheridge wrestled with whether to come out publicly. She and her label decided against it, though the word about her was already out in the gay community. The 1991 death of her father, John, a migrant farmer who worked his way up to becoming a schoolteacher and an athletic coach, had a huge impact on her ultimate choice to go public. "He was fine with [my sexuality], and he just wanted me to be happy," Etheridge says. "His passing propelled me into this place of needing to be who I am, because I wasn't going to be happy any other way."

So in January 1993, during President Bill Clinton's inaugural celebration, Etheridge attended the Triangle Ball, the first presidential gala for gays and lesbians. After years of wondering who among her gay Hollywood friends would be the first to "jump the river of fire," she was compelled to do so because, she explains, "politically we were all standing up. I was like, 'Look at all these people who put their lives and jobs on the line. Yeah, I'm going to come out.' And bang! There it was." Later that year, Etheridge titled her fourth album Yes, I Am.

By then, she was deep into a relationship with Julie Cypher — a filmmaker and the ex-wife of actor Lou Diamond Phillips — whom she'd met in 1988. Over the next dozen years, they became the model progressive gay couple, with Cypher conceiving their two children, daughter Bailey and son Beckett, by using donor sperm from rock star and friend David Crosby.

But in September 2000, not long after she and Etheridge made a splash on the cover of Rolling Stone, Cypher began questioning if she was gay after all, and the tidy world the couple had made together unraveled.

Within a year of their split, Etheridge, then 40, became involved with actress Tammy Lynn Michaels, 14 years her junior. In 2003 they held a commitment ceremony, and in 2006, two years after Etheridge's cancer diagnosis, Michaels gave birth to their twins, daughter Johnnie Rose and son Miller Steven, fathered by an anonymous sperm donor. Life seemed to be on the upswing again.

The same year that things began turning around for Etheridge, Sheryl Crow endured devastating back-to-back misfortunes. Six days after going public with her breakup from fiancé Lance Armstrong, reportedly because she wanted marriage and children and he wasn't ready, she got a callback about her mammogram. Further tests indicated breast cancer. "That was a really, really emotional time for me," Crow recounts. "My world was falling apart. I felt like the bottom had just dropped out. I called my family, and they all flew out to California." And she phoned her old friend Melissa Etheridge for support.

It never occurred to either woman to try to keep her illness secret. Today, though, Etheridge says: "If I could have, I would have chosen not to go through cancer or my divorces in public. Yet you can't say, 'I'm only going to let the public see the good stuff.' Whenever I sit down with someone, I need to know that I'm not hiding anything."

Crow's cancer diagnosis, coming so soon after her breakup with Armstrong (who in 1996 was diagnosed with metastatic testicular cancer), only intensified the publicity, and Crow's grief. Today she declines to discuss the cyclist, but with a trace of bitterness in her voice, she notes the irony of it all: "He was probably the most widely known cancer survivor, right? It was kind of a cruel joke."

Crow decided on a lumpectomy and radiation to treat her cancer, which doctors caught at an early stage.

Etheridge had not been so lucky. Her diagnosis was stage 3, though doctors later dialed it back to stage 2. "My radiologist, bless her heart, sat me down in a darkened room. She said, 'Melissa, I want you to know that this is the worst that can happen.' She unbuttoned her blouse and showed me her double mastectomy. She said, 'Do not fear. You are going to be OK.' So I started my journey with that base of 'I'm not going to die. I just have to walk through this.' "

The chemo debilitated her. "To have absolutely no energy is completely terrifying," Etheridge says. Unable to eat as a result of the nausea, she turned to medical marijuana, for which she is now a political advocate. "It calmed my anxiety and gave me an appetite, so I was able to keep my strength up," she adds.

Melissa Etheridge sings, Sheryl Crow and Melissa Etheridge Beat Cancer and Heartbreak

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Melissa Etheridge performs at the 2005 Grammy Awards.

Weeks after she had completed her treatments, a bald Etheridge agreed to perform at the 2005 Grammy Awards, participating in a tribute to Janis Joplin with "Piece of My Heart." It would be her first public appearance since her diagnosis, and she walked onto the stage thinking, "I just don't want anyone to make fun of me." She was so exhausted that when she began singing, she recalls, "I stood in one place, instead of moving around, which I usually do. That actually made for a much better performance." The crowd responded with a standing ovation.

Afterward, Etheridge lay in her bed and reflected. "Part of my spiritual awakening came from really examining myself," she explains. "I took the time to be still." Because Etheridge has a mutation of the BRCA2 gene, which predisposes women to breast cancer, her strategy for preventing a recurrence has been to exercise more control in her life and to fix what went wrong. "I'm not a victim," she says. "I take responsibility for it."

Crow has a different view. "I don't know of any clear-cut data that says if we do this or that, we can prevent ourselves from having cancer," she says. Instead of adopting Etheridge's take-charge approach to healing, Crow has ceded control — let go and stopped trying to please everyone around her. "I've been a person who fixes things," Crow says, " but when you're constantly fixing things for others, you sacrifice yourself."

Growing up in Missouri as the third of four children, Crow was driven from the start. Her father, Wendell, a lawyer, and her mother, Bernice, played in a swing band and encouraged Crow to make a life in music. In high school she excelled athletically and academically. At the University of Missouri she earned a degree in classical piano and voice, and in 1986 she headed to L.A. with her demo tape.

Sheryl Crow interacts with her audience, Sheryl Crow and Melissa Etheridge Beat Cancer and Heartbreak

Aaron Gilbert/Retna Ltd./Corbis

Grammy Award-winning Sheryl Crow rocks out.

She quickly found success with jingle work and on the Michael Jackson tour, but when that ended after two years, she found herself waitressing to support herself. "Every record label in L.A. turned me down," she says. "It was, 'We don't know what to do with a blue-eyed soul singer.' " In 1992 she recorded what was to be her debut, only to see the album shelved.

Two years later, "All I Wanna Do," a celebration of the California slacker culture, burst off her official debut, Tuesday Night Music Club. Her next single, "Strong Enough," secured Crow's spot as a hit maker. The album sold 7 million copies and snagged her three Grammy awards.

"That was such an amazing album!" Etheridge exclaims today, her eyes wide. "It just lit up everybody."

Crow's new popularity brought unexpected emotional jolts. "I was 32," she says. "I didn't care about fame, but the next thing you know, people are dressing you and writing about you. You have to be sensitive enough to have insight into the human condition to write long-lasting music, yet you have to form this tough skin. It took me a while to back away from that aspect of popularity and focus on the work."

But work took a backseat when cancer called. Crow downshifted her high-achieving lifestyle and turned her attention to taking care of herself. "I'd been living a really fragmented life," she says. "I hadn't learned how to take the weight of the world off my shoulders."

Sheryl Crow with her children, Sheryl Crow and Melissa Etheridge Beat Cancer and Heartbreak

Paul Hiffmeyer/Disneyland Resort via Getty Images

Sheryl Crow with her children.

Less than a year after her diagnosis, Crow decided to take steps to create the family she'd always wanted, without waiting for the right man to share this. ("I've picked some doozies to be in relationships with," she admits.) In May 2007 she adopted a 2-week-old boy, Wyatt Steven. The next year, she moved to Nashville to be nearer to her family. "In all the franticness, I didn't know where I belonged," she says. "All I could think to do was to move closer to home. It wound up being the best decision I ever made." In 2010 she adopted a second son, Levi James.

Her most recent album, last fall's Feels Like Home, finds her leaning hard on her country-rock template, particularly in songs about broken homes and romances gone cold. "What Crow's doing now is grownup's music," says Brian Mansfield, Nashville correspondent for USA Today. "She's writing about people who have experienced loss, and who worry about health and family and bill paying."

During a break in our interview, Etheridge dons a set of headphones and starts bobbing her head to a final mix of "Soul Brothers," a song on her upcoming CD,This Is M.E. Like Crow's latest, the album reflects the experiences of an artist who's reached maturity through hardship.

Crow and Etheridge agree that having made it to their 50s is reason to celebrate. They appreciate the accrued wisdom and the lack of needing to explain oneself. And for Etheridge, at least, a newfound sensuality. "The sex is better!" she says with a hearty laugh. "Seriously, I'm healthier, and in loving myself I attract a different kind of person now."

In late May, Etheridge married Nurse Jackie creator Linda Wallem, her longtime best friend. The two began dating in 2010, after the dissolution of Etheridge's relationship with Michaels. Both Etheridge and Crow, who is not currently in a relationship, want to teach their kids (Etheridge splits custody with her exes) some of the life lessons they've learned. For Crow, who in late 2011 was found to have a benign brain tumor, that means "having the perseverance to maintain who you are through abject trial and tribulation."

The women are also committed to educating others in the breast cancer fight. Crow has lent her name to an imaging facility at the Pink Lotus Breast Center in Los Angeles, a leader in innovative screening and treatment. She also talks with women she runs into at the airport or in the Starbucks line. "There's rarely a time that it doesn't come up," Crow says. They didn't seek to join this sorority, but now that Crow and Etheridge belong, they're grateful.

"It took having cancer for me to realize that happiness is something I have to cultivate in myself," Crow says, touching Etheridge's hand.

"I've learned to make fearless choices," says Etheridge. "You come up against stuff now and you're like, 'All right! Just do it!' "

Cancer, they agree, has become something they never imagined. "A gift," they say, almost in unison.