Pubdate: Sun, 16 Oct 2005
Source: MSNBC (US Web)
Copyright: 2005 MSNBC
Contact:  Dateline NBC
Anchor: Stone Phillips
Author: Stone Phillips, Anchor Dateline, NBC
Note: from MAP: Sections of the show transcript are intermixed with 
the web article written by Stone Phillips.
Cited: Melissa Etheridge
Bookmark: (Cannabis - Medicinal)


The Musician Talks to 'Dateline' About Surviving Cancer, Medicinal 
Marijuana, Realizing Priorities, and the Road Less Traveled

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.

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." 
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake