With a history of breast cancer in her family, Melissa Etheridge has always been vigilant about regular self-exams and mammograms. “The rule is, 10 years before you hit the age your mother was at the time of her diagnosis, you should start getting a baseline mammogram,” says her pal Rosie O’Donnell. “Melissa was very up on that.” Even so, Etheridge, 43, was stunned when she learned the first week in October that she had breast cancer. “Wow,” she wrote on her Web site, “I didn’t see this coming.”
The two-time Grammy winner checked into an L.A. hospital Oct. 9. But first, at O’Donnell’s urging, she consulted by phone with Dr. Susan Love, one of the country’s preeminent breast cancer experts. “The biggest question in her mind was whether there would be an advantage to doing a mastectomy or not,” says Love. “That comes up for most women. You feel like if you do something more drastic, it will work better.” But, Love cautions, even a mastectomy doesn’t remove all the breast tissue, which means that recurrence is still possible.
Instead Etheridge opted for a lumpectomy. Because cancer was found in her sentinel lymph node during the surgery, other lymph nodes were removed as well. Six days later, from home, she updated fans: “The good news is they took out the tumor and a few lymph nodes, only one of which was positive…. After that my margins are clean! I still have both of my breasts and whether I will keep them is a bridge I have to cross later.”
While Etheridge projected an upbeat mood, O’Donnell says her friend felt the impact keenly when she first heard the C word. “She was in shock. It was unbelievably overwhelming to be diagnosed and hear that word. You’re like, ‘What?’ ” Still, says O’Donnell, who lost her 39-year-old mother to breast cancer in 1973 and had a scare herself at age 32, “the survival rate is huge, and it’s not the death sentence that it was when my mother got it.”
Etheridge, who has played benefit concerts to raise awareness and research dollars for breast cancer, is now resting at her four-bedroom 1920s farmhouse in L.A. By her side throughout the ordeal has been Tammy Lynn Michaels, 29, the actress she exchanged vows with in September 2003. Since then—while Etheridge released her eighth album, Lucky and Michaels starred on Showtime’s The L Word—the newlyweds have settled into cozy domesticity with their three cats, two dogs and Etheridge’s two children. (She shares custody of Bailey Jean, now 7, and Beckett, 5, with her ex-girlfriend, Julie Cypher.) For the moment, Etheridge is busy e-mailing her closest friends, savoring family time and enjoying Michaels’s homemade cinnamon rolls. “She’s in a good place,” says O’Donnell.
Love says that in cases like Etheridge’s, surgery is typically followed by a six-week course of radiation and three months of chemotherapy. “We’ll discuss what comes out of her meeting with the medical oncologist and go from there,” says Love. “It’s just, ‘I’ve got to deal with it and I will.’ That’s her attitude.”
Though Etheridge has canceled the remainder of her current North American tour, she reassured fans on her Web site, “I am looking forward to a quick and full recovery.” Her plans include writing songs for a new album and continuing work on a pilot for an ABC sitcom in which she’s slated to star as a gay music teacher. “Melissa,” predicts her pal Kathy Najimy, “will soar through this in her usual, unbelievably courageous fashion.”
When Redgrave learned about her cancer in December 2002, she was most worried about Annabel, the youngest of her three children. “I didn’t want her to be scared for me,” says Redgrave, 61. But Annabel, 23, a photography student, devised her own plan for dealing with her fear: She would stick close and photograph her mother through every phase of her treatment—the mastectomy, the chemo, the hair loss. “We totally traded places,” Redgrave says. “I was in pieces; she stayed calm.” The photos also proved a solace. “I would look at her pictures and see the beauty,” says Redgrave. “I would feel less bad about myself.”
A few months ago, Redgrave, who declined reconstructive surgery, sunbathed nude in Croatia. “It was the first time I felt okay about my scar and revealing my loss,” she says. In September the pair published Journal: A Mother and Daughter’s Recovery from Breast Cancer, with photos by Annabel, text by Redgrave. While Redgrave hopes others draw strength from the book, for herself, “having your family stick by you was the key to my beating this thing. I was less afraid because I wasn’t alone.”
Upon her diagnosis in January 2000, Tami Agassi, older sister of tennis star Andre, told her surgeon, “I want a double mastectomy immediately.” The doctor tried to slow Tami down, but she’d come across stats suggesting that with a lumpectomy, there was a 20 percent chance of recurrence in the same breast, and a 2 percent chance of cancer spreading to her other breast. One week later Agassi had both breasts removed. When she awoke from surgery to learn her cancer had been stage one, she felt no regret. “I decided to take away the body parts that created the risks,” she says. “I know this is controversial.”
Today a healthy Agassi, 35, runs an ovarian cancer research center in Seattle and recently published Star Palate, a cookbook of celebrity recipes that benefits research. Engaged to entrepreneur Lobsang Dargey, 31, whom she met at a center fund-raiser, she says, “Cancer makes it easier to weed out the good people from the bad. Life is too short to be around people who don’t have their priorities straight.”
When breast cancer struck their families, these stars rallied
When her mother, Maria, learned that she had breast cancer in her early 40s, 16-year-old Daisy Fuentes was stunned: “I kept saying, ‘You’re going to be fine,’ and inside you’re saying; ‘It’s cancer.'” Maria underwent a successful lumpectomy. “Had she waited six months,” says Fuentes, now 37, “it may have been a completely different story.” After Fuentes became a Revlon spokeswoman in 1993, she became involved with the company’s breast cancer campaign.
At first, Maria was hesitant to go public. “She wanted to help people, but she still hadn’t even talked to a lot of her friends,” says Fuentes. “That lets you know the stigma that’s still connected to it. Women still think it’s something they did wrong, especially in the Latin and inner-city communities.” After her 10th anniversary of beating the disease, however, Maria relented. “She finally went full circle,” says Fuentes. “She really feels like a survivor now.”
Daly admits he didn’t give much thought to breast cancer before his mom’s diagnosis in 1998. “What does a 25-year-old guy care about breast cancer, other than we love breasts? You get educated very fast,” he says. The talk show host, now 31, learned quickly after his mother, Pattie Daly Caruso, underwent a lumpectomy, followed by a single mastectomy. Daly, who at 5 lost his father to bladder cancer, flew to be at her side. “He’s strong, funny and wonderful,” says Pattie, now 60, who has remained cancer-free. “Every time I see her,” says Daly, “is an opportunity to celebrate life.”
“My mom taught me there’s always a way to channel your fears into love,” says Murphy, who sprung back into action when mom Sharon had an MRI last year—after undergoing a lumpectomy and axillary dissection in 1995—and discovered new cancer cells. “I was there for every step of the way,” says Murphy, 26. “I went to every doctor’s appointment and chemo session.” Sharon, now 52, had a double mastectomy and wrapped up her chemo just in time to attend her daughter’s Little Black Book premiere in July. “Every day, she’s getting better and better,” says Murphy. “She’s just an exemplary example of strength and courage.”
Curry’s sister Jean Hodson, now 46, feared the worst after her 1998 diagnosis: “I knew a friend who passed away recently, and I thought I was going to be next.” But Curry refused to let that happen. “I’m not someone who throws my name around to get preferential treatment, but on this issue, I had no shame about it,” says the Today news anchor, who used her celebrity to get access to top cancer doctors and help Hodson review her options. After Hodson’s lumpectomy and chemo in 1999, Curry, 47, also located a wig to replace her sister’s formerly long mane.
While Hodson will pass her six-year mark as a breast cancer survivor in January, Curry is prepping a personal contribution to the cause. “My daughter McKenzie said, ‘Mom, we ought to grow our hair out for a cancer wig.’ And that’s why my hair is so long!”
Jill Smolowe, Jason Lynch. Julie Jordan, Carrie Bell, Susan Christian Goulding, Maureen Harrington and Ulrica Wihlborg in Los Angeles, K.C. Baker and Natasha Stoynoff in New York City and Rose O’Connor in Washington, D.C.