Melissa Etheridge says her breast cancer diagnosis was “her own doing”

When I think of lesbian women who have managed to exceed celesbianism and become hetero-household names even after coming out, the outspoken, oft misunderstood Melissa Etheridge is most definitely top five. Young gay girls of the ’90s and early 2000s, such as myself, watched Etheridge rise to fame while beckoning us to her window. We chose “I’m the Only One” as the most apropos of break up anthems, knowing only a fellow queer lady could articulate our feelings so accurately. We found our inner environmentalist when she set An Inconvenient Truth to music and defended her when Republicans questioned the veracity of climate change. We saw her through a public separation from Julie Cypher and a trainwreck of a split with Tammy Lynn Michaels. And when she defeated cancer, we felt like we’d won too.

Now, Miss M.E. is facing yet another controversy with regard to how she has elected to articulate her victory over breast cancer.

Etheridge, along with longtime friend and fellow musician Sheryl Crow, graces the cover of the October/November issue of AARP. The feature tells of Etheridge and Crow’s shared experiences, including public break-ups, motherhood, Midwestern-ness, and kicking the big C where the sun don’t shine. I appreciated the wide variety of issues addressed in this article and I’m not mad at the fact that an out lesbian would be chosen for the cover of a publication whose audience is largely retired persons over 50 (and presumably heterosexual). Both Etheridge and Crow tell of how cancer has changed their perspective and allowed them to focus on what is important rather than getting lost in the madness of Hollywood. Unfortunately, some of Etheridge’s comments on the science behind both her diagnosis and recovery have not been well received.

AARP picPhoto via AARP

Melissa Etheridge is quoted as saying, “This was of my own doing, and I take responsibility. When I got my body back into balance, the cancer disappeared.” She shares that, although she has the genetic mutation which increases one’s breast cancer risk, she believes that some of her lifestyle choices are ultimately to blame for her diagnosis as “Genes can be turned on or off,” to which she later corrected herself stating she would’ve done better to say “gene expression” rather than suggesting genes could be “turned on” or “off.”

A group comprised of doctors, breast cancer experts, and leaders from the nonprofit FORCE (Facing Our Risk of Cancer Empowered) expressed their distaste for Etheridge’s commentary via a letter to the editor. The letter provides a detailed explanation of how genetics influence breast cancer risk while criticizing Etheridge’s semantics and suggesting her statements were both inaccurate and irresponsible. According to the letter, “Ms. Etheridge’s statement about turning BRCA2 on and off with diet is inaccurate and can lead to high-risk women drawing incorrect and dangerous conclusions about their ability to prevent cancer through diet alone, and may lead some women to blame themselves for a cancer they were genetically predisposed to developing.”

We sure are putting a lot of stock into statements made by someone who, to my knowledge, doesn’t have so much as a degree in Biology. I am not discounting M.E.’s knowledge of the disease as I am sure she has spent countless hours arming herself with information on breast cancer. However, should we really expect her to be all knowing with regard to cancer just because she’s battled it herself? Medical professionals spend their entire careers attempting to make sense of an illness we are arguably still clueless about. Expecting a breast cancer survivor to teach us Cancer 101 seems a bit of a tall order. Melissa shares her experience and, for the most part, doesn’t make blanket statements that suggest this should be the gospel of cancer treatment. In her own Melissa Etheridgey outspoken manner, she declares that taking control of her life played a crucial part in her recovery.

In reading Etheridge’s portion of the AARP interview, it is clear that the out musician lives her life with intention. Her response to surviving cancer has clearly been taking better care of herself physically. And it seems that she believes that, had she taken better care of herself earlier, she could’ve potentially counteracted the genetic mutation that was working against her. And who’s to say this is untrue? Maybe there is science that suggests otherwise, but this disease remains a great mystery. If a breast cancer survivor uses her disease as a reason to make better choices, let us not chastise her for it.

So, let’s all lay off our adorably flawed rocker. Maybe her boldness is not to everyone’s taste, but she speaks her truth, which I find refreshing and quite rare. For better or worse, Melissa Etheridge has shared her life with her fans. And through her highs and lows, we’ve loved her because it feels like she’s ours and she’s never told us otherwise.

Etheridge’s latest album This is M.E. is out now. She is on tour through mid-December.

Follow Emily on Twitter @EmilyAMcGaughy