Lessons to Live By

Sheryl Crow reflects on the lessons of her cancer experience and shares the joy of her present life.

Mentally shelve the nine Grammy Awards and the genuine rock-star status, and a conversation with Sheryl Crow is really like having a chat with another—very cool—mom. Our conversation, a follow-up to our original interview three years ago, is dominated by talk of parenting and new priorities, organic gardening and the value of spiritual practice, and—oh, yeah—cancer.Now three years out from a diagnosis of Stage I breast cancer, a lumpectomy, and radiation, Sheryl says that life as a 47-year-old cancer-free rock-star mom is full and happy. And though she now sees her oncologist only once a year, she admits that her life is continually influenced by her status as a survivor. “I do think about it often,” she says. “I think that the cancer experience informed my life across the board: It reminded me of lessons I need to carry with me—like not to sweat the small stuff. It made me an easier-going person. It taught me how to let myself off the hook; I’m not nearly so self-critical.”They are lessons, says Sheryl, that she wants to always remember. “I’ve kept my tattoos [from radiation therapy] to remind me of the experience and of the emotional growth that resulted from having gone through treatment. I think it serves to remind me of the lessons I learned. I reflect on them every day because they’re lessons that were answers to questions I had my whole life about how to put myself first and how to say no without the guilt of letting people down—and that’s a lesson that continues to be a process for me.”

The lesson of self-care has been especially relevant, Sheryl says, since the arrival of her son, Wyatt, two years ago. Now in the midst of what she laughingly calls “the terrifically challenging twos,” Wyatt is clearly his mom’s first priority. “He’s the first thing I think of when I wake up in the morning and my last thought before I fall asleep at night,” Sheryl says, her voice resonating with the obvious love and a palpable sense of contentment that have transformed her life in the past couple of years.

In addition to bringing her incredible joy, Sheryl says that motherhood has challenged her to remember the value of paying attention to her own needs. Finding time to exercise and carve out time for herself is sometimes difficult. “Although [Wyatt is] my first concern, I’m trying to find ways to squeeze myself back in. I’ve really had to remind myself not to slide back into my old ways.”

One way that Sheryl continues to maintain clarity about her priorities is through daily meditation and prayer. “I’m always trying to enhance my spiritual life,” she says. “I feel the presence of God in me and around me all day long, and I try to tap into that.” Her regular prayer and spiritual dialogue serve to remind her of the gifts in her life, provide an opportunity to offer gratitude, and remind her of the lessons she learned through cancer. “I feel like my spiritual life has really deepened since [my diagnosis]; I feel I’m much more compassionate. Although I’ve always been a compassionate person, now it’s a posture instead of something I work at.”

And in case all this talk of parenthood and spirituality has left the impression that Sheryl the rock star has been swallowed up by motherhood and meditation, one need only look at her still-busy touring schedule to see that her new life has room for all her passions. When we talk she is recently back in Los Angeles (where she lives about half the time, when not on her farm in Nashville) after a touring stint that included performing the National Anthem at the 2009 All Star game in St. Louis, and she is planning a return to the recording studio. “It’s a compelling time to be an artist,” Sheryl says of her continued love of music and songwriting, “but I don’t feel that drive that I used to feel, and I think that’s healthy for me. Now it’s purely about the love of it and about the urgency of writing the truth.”

But writing the truth may not necessarily include writing about her cancer experience. Though she doesn’t rule out the possibility of including those experiences in her work, Sheryl has kept the two things separate up to this point. She kept a journal throughout her treatment, which she says was therapeutic, but she stayed away from songwriting. “I was really conscious of not going to my place of productivity to distract myself from holding the emotion that I really needed to learn how to hold,” Sheryl says.

And experiencing—and working through—all the emotions connected with her diagnosis and treatment was ultimately transformative. “A friend once told me that emotion is the gateway to awakening,” she says, “and I think there’s so much truth in that.” Now, with years and perspective since her diagnosis, she still writes about the experience but not necessarily with the intention of making it public. “Now I write without the intent of recording—and that makes it more enjoyable for me.”

Sheryl’s professional and personal life today exudes joy and balance; she moves forward from her cancer journey empowered and enriched, full of the love of her family and dedicated to showing her gratitude. To offer thanks for her own good prognosis and to acknowledge the many survivors still fighting the disease, she continues to work as an advocate in the cancer community. Most recently, she has become involved with Stand Up to Cancer (SU2C), a grassroots fundraising and advocacy movement that aspires to revolutionize the way people think about cancer by funding interdisciplinary “Dream Teams” that will work to bring critical research advances to patients quickly. “They’re cutting right to the chase,” Sheryl says. “The possibility of seeing a cure in our lifetime is really exciting.” The work of groups like SU2C, Sheryl says, is critical. “Almost every day someone I know is diagnosed with cancer. It’s a reminder that it’s not going away.”

By remaining engaged in advocacy work, remembering the value of the lessons she has learned, and thriving in her fulfilling present, Sheryl honors her journey as a breast cancer survivor.

Food for Life

After her diagnosis and throughout her treatment and recovery, Sheryl paid special attention to her diet and to the role that nutrition plays in prevention and overall wellness. Today she remains committed to embracing food as an empowering tool for survivorship.

“So much of what we rely on for our bodies to excel is in the food we eat,” Sheryl says. “There’s so much merit in knowing the effect of various foods.” From her own experience, she knows that it’s not just about the food itself during treatment; it’s also about how making proactive choices can make you feel. “Part of the cancer experience is a sense of helplessness—the feeling like you’re at the disposal and at the whim of your medical treatment and that it’s something being done to you.” By making healthy choices about food, survivors can become actively involved in the process. “The sense that you’re a participant and that you have some role in your own recovery is so empowering,” Sheryl says.

Awareness of the vital role that healthy foods play in our lives is something that Sheryl hopes to pass along to Wyatt. “I’m conscientious about making sure that what he eats is organic and free of pesticides and herbicides and that he learns where food comes from.” To that end the family has a big organic garden at their Nashville home and raises their own chickens. Sheryl acknowledges that her choices are not available to everyone. Though organic food is widely available now, the price can be prohibitive for many families. To get around the cost, she encourages shopping at local farmers’ markets and growing organic produce at home—in a garden or in pots—and she looks forward to a time when eating organic, fresh food is an option for everyone.

Sheryl hopes that Wyatt will come to know the value of the lifestyle she embraces, and she is committed to instilling gratitude along with healthy habits. “Wyatt will be raised to say a prayer of gratitude before he eats anything, which is how I was raised,” she says. “I hope to raise him with the consciousness that we can grow our own food and that the earth really does sustain us. I hope he’ll grow up knowing what good health is and being active and able to correlate his good fortune with the Great Spirit.” It’s clear that Sheryl’s approach to physical nourishment, like so many aspects of her life, is formed by her knowledge of the inevitable connection of body and spirit.

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