05/18/1998 at 01:00 AM EDT
On May 2, Carly Simon took the stage at the Berklee College of Music in Boston and did something she has usually preferred to avoid in some 35 years as a performer: She sang before a live audience. Instead of accepting her honorary doctorate from the college with a short speech, as expected, Simon serenaded the school's 535 graduates with an a cappella verse from her 1971 hit "Anticipation." "She appeared radiant," says Gary Burton, the school's executive vice president. "She looked beautiful and full of life."
Indeed, she was—which, as it turned out, was reason enough for her to break into song. Just days after the Berklee event, Simon, 52, revealed that she was in her last weeks of chemotherapy, having had a small cancerous lump removed from her breast in October. Simon had planned to keep her condition secret until finishing the treatment but broke the news to preempt a tabloid story that she was warned would exaggerate her condition. In fact, she says, "the prognosis is excellent. I'm one of the lucky ones in that way. Everything is looking good."
Simon, who splits her time between Martha's Vineyard and Manhattan, was feeling more nervous than fortunate last October, when she went for a mammogram followed by a biopsy to test a lump that she admits she had detected "quite some time" before. With no history of breast cancer in her family, the diagnosis—malignant tumor—came as a shock. "I thought I would belong to many different clubs. I could imagine myself in an insane asylum," she says with a laugh "—but not this."
Buoyed by the support of her children from her first marriage, to singer James Taylor—Sally, 24, and Ben, 21—and the devotion of her current husband, writer James Hart, 48, Simon prepared for battle; "I went into warrior mode," she says. "I went from being terribly afraid to feeling as if I could conquer this."
After surgery to remove the lump, Simon spent just one night in the hospital. Days later, tests determined the cancer hadn't spread. Still, Simon's oncologist gave her the option of chemotherapy as an added precaution. She took it, she says, just to be sure. "It wasn't M&Ms," she says of the drugs she has received every three weeks since November, "but it's a lighter kind of chemo that's not as devastating to the system as others."
Certainly it hasn't kept Simon housebound. She has maintained a busy social schedule, appearing at February's Grammy Awards in New York City and rubbing shoulder pads with the Green Bay Packers at an April charity bash for the Muscular Dystrophy Association in Boston. Says her lawyer Howard Siegel: "She really hasn't slowed down a bit."
And it seems she doesn't intend to. With only one chemo session to go—and no need ("Knock on wood," she says) for the wigs she bought in case of hair loss—Simon is working on a new album and contemplating ways to use her fame to promote awareness of a disease that is diagnosed in some 180,000 U.S. women each year. "The most important thing to tell women is to get the mammogram in the first place," she says. Simon also hopes recent medical advances signify that a cure may be close. "It feels," she says, "like a really good time to be alive."
Elizabeth McNeil in New York City