By Diana Price
Sheryl Crow’s quiet, easy voice catches me a little off-guard. She’s a rock star, after all, and I don’t know if I’m expecting her to belt something out right there into the phone or if I just expect a more forceful presence. The woman I’m speaking to, instead, offers me a sense of calm and a vibe of peaceful attentiveness that puts me at ease.
Maybe she’s just a little worn out from her tour schedule—I’ve caught her on a rare day off during month 4 of her Wildflower tour—but a few minutes of conversation reveal the real story, which is much more profound. Her quiet, unhurried, and thoughtful responses reflect someone in touch with the value of her life these days. Her voice, so powerful and beautiful in the music that has earned her nine Grammys and has sold more than 30 million albums, is calm and reflective. Her answers—softened by a slight southern lilt—give me a glimpse of a woman who in recent months has been pushed to come to know herself more intimately than ever before and, having been tested, has found the peace that comes from knowing your own strength and recognizing your own value.
She is, above all, grateful to be where she is. At age 44, Sheryl went for a routine mammogram and, after a follow-up needle biopsy ultimately diagnosed an invasive ductal carcinoma in her left breast. Her diagnosis was followed by a lumpectomy and seven weeks of radiation therapy.
Her gratitude for her health and happiness and for the support of her family and friends is present throughout our conversation. Her responses to my questions about her experience are filled with phrases like, “I feel so fortunate,” “I know I’m very, very lucky,” and “It was such a blessing.”
Sheryl’s story does in fact seem—on the surface—to be one of good luck and good timing: her Stage I cancer was caught very early because her OBGYN encouraged her to get a biopsy right away following a suspicious mammogram—despite the radiologist’s prescription to check back in six months. But talk to her a little longer and you’ll find out that Sheryl has been getting regular mammograms since she was 35 because her dense breasts make self-exams difficult and that she has worked as a breast cancer advocate for years. It becomes clear that good prevention and good screening are the real story here . . . and maybe a little good karma.
The early diagnosis did not, however, lessen the impact of the news. For Sheryl, who has always been careful about her health and physical fitness, and was—in her own words—“seemingly invincible,” the news that she did in fact have invasive cancer in her left breast came as a complete shock.
Always very connected to her close-knit family, Sheryl immediately called her parents at home in Kennett, Missouri. “They were great on the phone,” she says. “They said, ‘Look, hold it together; we’re going to be there in the morning.’” Sheryl’s two sisters, Karen and Kathy, and her brother, Steve, would also eventually come to her home in Los Angeles to “take shifts” during her treatment and to provide support. Her mom cooked wonderful soups and other great organic meals. It was so meaningful, Sheryl says, throughout the process, to have the unconditional care that is present in a close family—supportive but “not in your face.”
It’s obvious too that the experience bonded the family on another level. “Time kind of stands still [during an event like this],” Sheryl says, “and it immediately puts people into an introspective, life-evaluating mind-set, and we drew closer as a family than we already were—and we were a pretty close group.”
Her family’s support proved essential for Sheryl during the seven weeks of radiation therapy that followed her lumpectomy. Because of her high level of fitness and her general good health, she had not expected the resulting physical fatigue and its accompanying emotional toll. “Because I’m such an active person, toward the end it was challenging for me because I think with [fatigue] you do feel like you’re depressed just by virtue of the fact that you’re tired and you’re napping.”
Ultimately, though, Sheryl’s experience with the effects of fatigue became one of many lessons in self-care that she learned during her cancer journey. Eventually, she says, “I gave into it and I felt like it was a way of honoring myself; to say, Okay, I need to go take a nap, or I need to clear my house and make everyone go home.” Learning to listen to her own voice and to value what she needed became a critical shift in the way she would approach her life.
This conscious decision to honor her body and her spirit by allowing herself the time to rest and heal was an essential turning point in Sheryl’s recovery. Her cancer diagnosis and treatment marked the first time, she says, that she was forced to put herself first.
Since her diagnosis she has had the opportunity to hear other breast cancer survivors share their experiences; and she has heard women in all stages of life—who are bound by the common thread of a lack of self-care and self-nourishment leading up to a diagnosis—share the same story. “Almost every woman I’ve talked to who has gone through breast cancer treatment has the same story to tell about the metaphysical aspects of it: where the breast represents nourishment—we come into the world fed by the breast, we give life, we feed our children by the breast, we instinctually are caregivers and take care of those around us, and we put ourselves last. I know that’s true in my life.”
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Now, Sheryl says, recognizing her own value and stepping in to care for herself have become priorities. “I’m very conscious of [taking care of myself] now. The act of saying no when something doesn’t feel right—although it’s a foreign feeling for me—is a practice that I try to observe every day. Just the awareness that I’m as important as all the people in my life, and if I don’t take care of myself then obviously I’m going to be unable to really give my best to everybody else.”
Part of Sheryl’s commitment to caring for herself during her radiation treatment included daily meditation and journaling. She has practiced twice-daily meditation for years, and during her treatment it was key to helping her stay centered. “When you’re a known figure and you have all these people praying for you and sending you energy, I think—energetically—somehow you’re aware; and I was really emotionally tired, and meditating helped me keep my center.”
With meditation helping her stay centered physically, Sheryl found that journaling helped her stay grounded emotionally as she dealt with the turmoil in her personal life. “I didn’t really feel like talking that much, so it was a nice way to express what I was feeling.” Before her diagnosis Sheryl might have turned to her guitar or her piano to work through the feelings that the experience evoked, drawn to the songwriting that has always been her emotional outlet. But during treatment she made the conscious decision to stay away. “One of the things I did during radiation treatment was not go to my guitar or to my piano and write songs because I feel like that’s so connected to who I am—to my persona, to my ego, to my work. So to go there where I could set myself up for self-criticism just seemed futile. And to sit down and write how I was feeling in a journal felt much more sacred and much more safe. And it kept me in the experience.”
These private, quiet practices that carried Sheryl through her treatment and recovery also helped her, as she says, “own” her experience before it became—like so much of the rest of her life—a public affair. Now that she’s back on tour, however, interacting with her fans and sharing her cancer experience with them, she is clearly touched by the public response that she has received.
As Sheryl discusses her experiences with other survivors, a sense of awe creeps into her voice, and it’s clear that she has felt deeply the impact of meeting all of the women—“a tribe that seems to be growing,” she says—who approach her and offer their stories. And the tour experience, she says, on the other side of her cancer diagnosis, has been an incredible change.
“Without sounding too woo-woo or Pollyanna,” Sheryl says, “when I came back from treatment I felt so differently about what I was doing. I felt so much love coming from the audience. I don’t know that it wasn’t there before, but I was so much more aware of it when I came back. I have had so many people tell me that after they experience radiation they are extremely metaphysically open, and I was definitely aware of how much support I had out there.”
It’s clear, too, that Sheryl feels her privileged place among the survivors she meets—both for her fortunate early diagnosis and for the resources that provided her with such excellent treatment. She acknowledges that getting to know the costs involved in cancer care and the related insurance issues during her treatment made her think hard about all of the women who face a diagnosis without insurance or without an advocate to help them navigate through the system. “That’s been a really worrisome thing for me,” she says.
As we discuss the medical system that Sheryl got to know well during her diagnosis and treatment, it’s clear that she is also excited about the many hopeful signs for breast cancer patients in research and in treatments now available. “Every day there will be some sort of announcement on the news about advances being made in gene therapy,” she says; “and I do think that as far as cancer and disease are concerned, the smallest advances are celebratory.” A note of determination edges into her voice as she sums up our discussion of ongoing research, saying, “I feel like this is the war we should be fighting.”
That sense of determination is clear in her commitment to stay involved in breast cancer advocacy now that she has begun sharing her story. Sheryl will continue to spread her message of the importance of early detection and screening, and she plans to work with her nutritionist, Rachel Bellar, to publicize information that has been so helpful to her about nutrition and disease prevention.
Like the tribe of women she joined in February, Sheryl now lives with the altered reality—the “new normal”—of a life after cancer that will never be the same as it was before. Her experience informs her small choices—what she eats for breakfast (fiber cereal recommended by Bellar)—and her large choices—whom she puts first (herself, more now than before), and she is moving ahead with the lessons of this journey forefront in her mind.
When I ask what she is most looking forward to in this new chapter in her life, she seems to pause and take a deep, considered breath and then says, “I feel like my life has really opened up a lot. There was a lot of negative stuff in my life before I was diagnosed, and I feel like my life has really opened up since the experience. I’m much less critical of myself. I feel extremely strong and healthy and empowered. I feel like my best work is ahead of me; although if I never work again, if I never write another song, I’m in a good place. I’m just going to continue to do the things I feel compelled to do—whether it’s talk about my cancer experience or about the environment, or writing songs, or in relationships, or wherever my life takes me.”
What is abundantly clear is that wherever Sheryl Crow’s life takes her, she seems to have entered the new world of cancer survivorship driven by gratitude and grace. Her gratitude is easy to name: it’s for the life she has now and for the medical resources that caught her cancer so early, for the love and care she received (from family, friends, and her medical team), and for the opportunity she has been given to make a difference.
Her grace is more intangible but just as real. It’s somewhere in her thoughtful answers and in the kindness that comes through across the phone line. It’s in the love that it is clear she feels not just for her friends and family but for all of her fans and the wider community that has been so generous in its support of her through this experience. It is reflected in her spiritual practice and in the music through which we’ve come to know her. And now, in continuing to share her music, to tell her story, and to care for herself, she is telling us again, and in a new, authentic way, who she truly is.