"My radiologist, bless her heart, sat me down in a darkened room.She said, 'Melissa, I want you to know that this is the worst that can happen.' She unbuttoned her blouse and showed me her double mastectomy. You are going to be OK.' So I started my journey with that base of 'I'm not going to die.They've gone through traumatic breakups; Crow announced the end of her five-month engagement to cyclist Lance Armstrong in 2006, and Etheridge split from two of her long-term partners — Julie Cypher in 2000 and Tammy Lynn Michaels in 2010. (The revelation tore up the family, and today Etheridge and Jennifer no longer speak.) Raised, Etheridge adds, with very little affection from her mother, she began yearning for the company of women in adolescence and, by age 16, realized that she wanted intimacy with women, too. As Foreigner's Cold as Ice comes over the sound system during our interview, Etheridge sings along. Whenever I hear that song now I think, 'I'm not cold; I'm just gay.' " But at the time, the word "lesbian" terrified her, as did her feelings.Most significantly, they've both stared down an ominous adversary that strikes almost 300,000 American women a year: breast cancer. "That's what my last boyfriend said to me," she reveals, laughing. "I hope it's better for gay youth today," she says, "but, boy, when I was a kid, it was a dark tunnel to look down." On the eve of the release of her first album, Etheridge wrestled with whether to come out publicly.— they first met at the Los Angeles Sports Arena during Michael Jackson's Bad concert tour.Backstage, Crow, then a backup singer for the Gloved One, approached Etheridge, whom critics had compared to Janis Joplin and Bruce Springsteen when her first album came out that spring, and gushed, "I'm a huge fan of your record! "We have had parallel lives in some ways," Crow muses. Songwriters and performers, they both have risen to the top of their game professionally." "It was such a lovely surprise," Etheridge remembers, "and one of the first times someone whose work I admired was already an admirer of my work." Fast-forward 20-some years. (Crow has won nine Grammys and sold 35 million records, and Etheridge has five platinum albums and two Grammys to her credit.) They are doting mothers — Crow to two boys, ages 4 and 7, and Etheridge to four children, the eldest 17 — though neither has given birth. Cancer.' You just can't quiet the voice." But she tried, telling herself, "No, it's a cyst." By that point in her life, Etheridge had already braved her share of hardships.Etheridge, 53, sits at a table next to Crow in Los Angeles, sipping on cranberry juice and spearing pink grapefruit from a bowl, recalling those days. And both have publicly endured a series of difficult challenges. Though she was, Etheridge says, "a very good kid" — she started writing songs on her guitar at age 8, and in high school became "the band and theater geek" — she had a dark secret. , Etheridge wrote that her older sister, Jennifer, sexually abused her between ages 6 and 11.
Six days after going public with her breakup from fiancé Lance Armstrong, reportedly because she wanted marriage and children and he wasn't ready, she got a callback about her mammogram. "That was a really, really emotional time for me," Crow recounts. It never occurred to either woman to try to keep her illness secret.Her father, Wendell, a lawyer, and her mother, Bernice, played in a swing band and encouraged Crow to make a life in music. Two years later, "All I Wanna Do," a celebration of the California slacker culture, burst off her official debut, Tuesday Night Music Club.In high school she excelled athletically and academically. She quickly found success with jingle work and on the Michael Jackson tour, but when that ended after two years, she found herself waitressing to support herself. Her next single, "Strong Enough," secured Crow's spot as a hit maker. "It just lit up everybody." Crow's new popularity brought unexpected emotional jolts. "I didn't care about fame, but the next thing you know, people are dressing you and writing about you."I took the time to be still." Because Etheridge has a mutation of the BRCA2 gene, which predisposes women to breast cancer, her strategy for preventing a recurrence has been to exercise more control in her life and to fix what went wrong. "I take responsibility for it." Crow has a different view."I don't know of any clear-cut data that says if we do this or that, we can prevent ourselves from having cancer," she says.