First, there was the lime green monkey. Then came the T-shirt, the teddy bear, the painting, the license plate and other gifts, all of which Melissa Etheridge graciously accepted from fans and piled before the drum kit, like some sort of altar.
Before her battle with breast cancer, Etheridge was already adored by her fans -- for her impassioned blues rock and her coming-out as a lesbian midcareer. She seems even more cherished by them now.
During her sold-out concert at the House of Blues on Saturday, the audience was an ocean of raised arms and swaying bodies as Etheridge tore into songs off her newly released greatest-hits album and bantered with the XX- and XY-chromosome couples, alternating between lighthearted mentions of her cancer experience and the macho swaggering that fans have always loved.
If you didn't know that Etheridge had spent a portion of the last year bedridden and immobile, you wouldn't have known from her glowing skin and voice, which is as strong and clear as ever. Speaking with Etheridge in her Hidden Hills home a few days before the show, she said her energy returned to 100% only in early October. That's one year after she found a 4-centimeter lump in her left breast while on tour.
Physically, all that remains of that lump these days are the scars. Pulling down the neck of her loose-fitting orange T-shirt, Etheridge showed the thin, pink line running across her chest toward her armpit. That one -- from the lumpectomy -- doesn't bother her so much.
"The scar from where they put the portacatheter in," she said, revealing a darker red, raised circle over her right breast, "that scar -- I would curse it." That's where the chemo went in -- five times in two months -- pumping the near-toxic medicine directly into her heart and throughout her body. That's how she spent the last two months of 2004 -- in pain.
"I wasn't able to watch television because it hurt. Music, sound hurt. You can smell everything, so anything anyone's eating makes you completely sick," said Etheridge, 44.
"I was completely still. Us, who live our lives so busy with every day planned, to come to a complete standstill was something I'd never done before," she added. "Day after day, I was lying in bed with nothing but my head and my thoughts."
Retreating into her mind to escape the pain of her body, she took a long, hard look at her life and her career. It wasn't nearly as glamorous as it looked from the outside. Where the public saw a lighthearted and fearless performer with a long and enviable career, she saw a workaholic whose self-worth fluctuated with media attention, radio airplay and record sales. Where the public saw a woman comfortable with her sexuality and appearance, she saw body-image issues, poor eating habits and Hollywood pressures to be thin.
"I had a lot of self-loathing," said Etheridge. "I've been self-sustained since I was 11. I've always been the one making the money, and to be flat on my back and ... so vulnerable and then be completely loved. To have my wife be there, 110% supportive. To have my children say, 'It's OK, Mom.' To have the people that I work for say, 'It's OK.' To have my fans go, 'It's all right.' It's like, what was I afraid of? I'm going to get healthy now, and I'm not going to carry that baggage anymore."
Likening her cancer experience to "instant Drano," Etheridge's priorities have shifted, she said. While she loves her career, she does a sort of cost-benefit analysis now to determine whether the energy she's expending will ultimately benefit her home and family. That family consists of the woman she considers her wife, actress Tammy Lynn Michaels, and her two children, both of whom were conceived with a little help from singer David Crosby when Etheridge was involved with filmmaker Julie Cypher.
Etheridge's "hideous 10-year relationship" with Cypher came to a bitter end in 2000, but it still looms large. It's no coincidence her tumor was over her heart, Etheridge said. "I was completely denying myself love and support and all those things that relationships are."
Ask Etheridge how her cancer experience would have been different if the couple had still been together, and she shifts in her chair, averting her normally direct gaze.
"I don't even go there," she said, before adding softly, "I don't know if I'd even be around." She paused. "I'm cancer-free, and I'm very happy to be in the life that I'm in and where I'm at. I made the right choices." When it comes to choices, Etheridge said she always goes with "walking in my truth" instead of hiding it.
While publicly revealing she had breast cancer wasn't difficult, she said, returning to the spotlight was. She had been out of chemo for only two weeks when she was asked to perform at this year's Grammys. She felt weak. She was so bald she didn't even have eyelashes or eyebrows. Her skin was so dry it flaked.
She feared she might run out of energy midperformance. She feared she'd be ridiculed and ripped apart by the press. And yet, she agreed. One month later, on live TV, she performed a rendition of "Piece of My Heart" so well received and powerful, even Janis Joplin would have felt threatened.
"To be completely stripped bare of any image power or my hair," said Etheridge, whose hair is now short, spiky and blond. "To step onstage and get the response that I got blew any problems I had about self-image out the door."
The effects of that performance are still being felt today. This month, Etheridge seems to be everywhere. In addition to the TV talk show circuit, she is the subject of a Lifetime breast cancer awareness special Tuesday, "WomenRock! Our Journey With Melissa Etheridge."
She is also appearing in breast cancer awareness campaigns for Safeway and Ford Motors, the latter of which co-sponsors the fundraiser Race for the Cure, for which she also wrote the song "I Run for Life." That song also appears on Etheridge's "Greatest Hits: The Road Less Traveled," which was released two weeks ago. A DVD edition hits stores Tuesday.
"What's happening right now, this month, I check in and go, 'Hey. You are at the top of a wave right now. Look around and enjoy it because it's not going to stay,' " said Etheridge. "The wave goes away. It does not dictate how good I am or my worth. It's just the way it happens."