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Etheridge rediscovers love

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HIDDEN HILLS, Calif. -- It's the night of Feb. 13. Melissa Etheridge walks onstage at the Grammy Awards ceremony slinging her guitar, ever the rock star in her blue velvet blazer, faded jeans and black cowboy boots. She's strumming and striding to the microphone.

"C'mon. Take it. Take another little piece of my heart now baby," she belts.

The crowd is going crazy. This isn't just another performance. Because today Etheridge is bald -- no crazy mane of blond hair. The image is at once startling and stunning.

This is no fashion statement. Etheridge has breast cancer. And this Janis Joplin tribute is one of the few things that could bring her out so soon after chemotherapy.

Just as Etheridge has come out as a lesbian, she now is out about her breast cancer, too.

"Break it," she sings. "Break another little bit of my heart now darling ... You know you got it." Then comes the famous scream. And in that three-second primal yell, she finds release.

Flash-forward to the present day. Nearly a year after her diagnosis, Etheridge, 44, is curled up on her green velvet couch, reflecting on her life. She is typically makeup-free, wearing a frayed T-shirt and cargo pants. Her hair has grown a few inches, and she loves it, she says, running her hands through the choppy new growth.

There's a lot to love these days.

She's cancer-free; the tumor was caught early. She'll release a greatest-hits album on Oct. 4 that includes two new original songs. And she says she's deeply in love.

Etheridge bounds up to greet her partner, Tammy Lynn Michaels, when she walks in the door carrying orange roses for their big country-style home tucked within a gated community in the golden hills of Southern California.

"That's my wife," she says. She and Michaels were wed in a ceremony in Malibu two years ago, three years after Etheridge's very public and bitter breakup with her partner of 12 years, Julie Cypher. Etheridge and Cypher share custody of their two children, Becket, 6, and daughter Bailey, 8. But "we don't get along," she says. "I'm very angry."

After their breakup, Cypher and Etheridge purchased homes with adjoining backyards so their children could be near both moms. But Etheridge and Michaels moved to their new home last year. They were in escrow when Etheridge was diagnosed.

"I don't think it's any coincidence that the cancer was over my heart," she says, placing her right hand across her chest to the place where the 4-centimeter tumor grew. "That has been a struggle in my life -- to find my love, to be loved, to feel."

She and Michaels are preparing to have a child. They're planning for Michaels to become pregnant by a sperm donor -- but not '70s rock singer David Crosby, who famously donated sperm so Etheridge and Cypher could conceive. "Done with that," she says. "Don't need any more from him. It was great for these two."

This summer she, Michaels and the kids, who joined them every other week, took an RV trip across the USA. Etheridge emptied all the holding tanks herself, she boasts. "I drove it all the way to New York and back. It was so good for all of us."

But her road to this moment wasn't so carefree.

Cancer took her on a dark journey, she says -- hours of pain, alone in her head, withdrawn from the world, from her partner, from her children, her music, her fans -- everything. Chemo was like acid washing through her body. And she disappeared.

The experience prompted her song This Is Not Goodbye on the new album.

She once lived for the stage, drinking in the adoring crowds. But, she says, "I let it run my life. I let it take priority."

She plans to return to the road next summer. In the meantime, she has several TV appearances scheduled for next month, including The Oprah Winfrey Show, Good Morning America, Late Show with David Letterman, Live with Regis and Kelly and a one-hour Lifetime special Oct. 18 featuring Etheridge singing and talking about breast cancer, WomenRock! Living in the Pink with Melissa Etheridge.

But family and health are bigger priorities than they once were. "I had hours and days of nothing but my mind," she says. "And that is where the perspective came in. That's where it was like, oh, all the stuff I've been clamoring for -- the success, I want to be the best at this -- it's just air. It's not my soul. It's not my body.

"And all these corny things are so true. Love is absolutely the most important thing. That is my ultimate priority. With my wife. With my children. With friends and family.

"To love myself -- that was the biggest thing. I have a lot of love to give, but I wasn't taking care of my deep, deep inside self. I've evolved. I've let go of a lot of toxic behaviors, a lot of toxic people."

Etheridge eats much healthier now. Once she says she lived on the average American diet of on-the-go food and had stomach problems such as acid reflux. Today she munches on a salad of bibb lettuce, avocado, chicken, olive oil and apple cider vinegar that Michaels prepares for her.

And, she says, she also has shifted gears emotionally. She takes more time for herself.

"I'm not giving so much of myself away because I want people to like me. I was raised in the Midwest, and it was all about 'Don't rock the boat.' You want everybody to like you. And I carried it with me for so long. (Now), it's like, you know what? Enough people like me. ... I don't need to give to those who aren't giving back."

Etheridge almost always has been open, if not outspoken, about her life. She came out as a lesbian years before Ellen DeGeneres and as a gay parent in the '90s. When her relationship with Cypher ended, she wrote and spoke publicly about it, sometimes bitterly. And when she fell in love with Michaels, 14 years her junior, she publicly announced their wedding ceremony.

Etheridge found the lump in her breast Oct. 1, 2004. Six days later, at 4 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 7, she received the diagnosis: Stage 2 breast cancer. It had not spread to other organs. She had to cancel her concert tour for her album Lucky. She could have made up a reason but never considered it.

"I said, 'OK, once again, this is the truth.' This is what I'm going through. Just tell the world. It was the next step."

That night, "as I was falling asleep, Tammy had the local evening news on and the local newsman said, 'Melissa Etheridge has cancer.' It was really intense to just let it start to sink in."

When she performed at the Grammys, she knew there might be a reaction to her going bald instead of wearing a wig or a hat. The night before the performance, "I was telling Tammy, 'I just hope nobody makes fun of me.'"

Far from it.

Women, especially cancer survivors, responded immediately. News shows featured them talking about tossing out their wigs.

"I was bawling, and I knew it was going to happen," says Rosie O'Donnell, Etheridge's friend since 1988, when they were just starting their careers and neither had come out publicly. "It was the ultimate catharsis for everyone who has been touched by this disease."

O'Donnell's mother died of breast cancer. Etheridge has had several relatives die of cancer: her grandmother, her aunt, her father. "But you don't think you're going to get it," she says.

"Oh no. It's a little puffy cloud that's out there. You don't ever grab onto it until it's like, there it is. Then it's like the veil is lifted off cancer. Because cancer is so powerful. People still look at me like, 'Are you alive? How are you? Are you going to die?'"

No, no, she explains to them. "I have no cancer in me right now. I'm not sick at all. I had that taken out."

Because the cancer was discovered early, Etheridge was lucky: Medically speaking, she is considered cancer-free, says Susan Love, a breast cancer expert who runs the Susan Love Research Foundation.

But Etheridge still had to have the lump removed. She still had to go through radiation and chemotherapy. And "you can't say 100% that you have been cured of breast cancer until you die at 95 of stroke," Love says. "There's always the possibility of it coming back."

Since her diagnosis, Etheridge has become something of a national spokeswoman for breast cancer. She is donating royalties from her song I Run for Life to breast cancer charities and is lending her face to a Ford campaign against breast cancer. A group of her fans put together the Pink Bracelet Fund; they are using Etheridge's image to sell pink bracelets to raise money for breast cancer research.

And she's still thinking about music and writing. Once her songs were filled with angst, betrayal, loss, jealousy. Now she has new material. "It's all up there in my head. I can feel the inspiration, which is where everything starts -- from everything from my love to my thoughts about life and the world to my fears of cancer.

"There's so many things now to write about that I'm looking forward to. ... I know there's a whole lot more to write."

Is she happy?

She responds as though the question is rhetorical. "What do you think?" she says with a smile. "Yes ma'am. I'm very happy."

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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