A New Verse
04/28/2003 at 01:00 AM EDT
At a trim 5'3", pop singer Anastacia was fed up with her DD bra-cup size. Her chest—the product of genetics, not implants—had long caused her years of back pain, and in January, after suffering two herniated discs, she finally decided to undergo breast-reduction surgery. But first, her doctor ordered a mammogram to rule out any potential complications. "When he said I needed a mammogram, I was like, 'Isn't that for older women?' " says the mono-named Anastacia, 34. "But he said it was routine, so I said, 'It's cool. I'll do it.' "
Smart move. The mammogram detected tiny, dense specks of calcium in her left breast—which can indicate cancer. "I saved my own life just because I wanted to reduce my breast size," she says. "I didn't have breast cancer in my family. I didn't have a lump in my breast. This would not have been detected with a self-exam." In February the singer underwent a seven-hour surgery that involved a lumpectomy and reconstruction of her left breast, along with the removal of one of her lymph nodes and the reduction (to a size C) of her right breast. Because the cancer was detected in its earliest stage and had not spread, the cure rate is "over 90 percent," says Anastacia's cancer surgeon Dr. Alexander Swistel, noting that the singer "is determined to beat this. She's a fighter."
Despite her tough-chick bravado—performing for the first time post-surgery, she sang "The Bitch Is Back" with pal Elton John at his Oscar party—Anastacia acknowledges that "when you first hear the word 'cancer,' it's terrifying." The small calcifications that Dr. Swistel initially spotted in her breast appear "as if someone sprinkled salt on the [X-ray] film," he says. Typically such deposits are harmless, but in about 10 percent of cases they show an early stage of malignancy. To determine if Anastacia's did, she underwent a biopsy Jan. 16 at New York City's Weill Cornell Breast Center to remove a small amount of tissue for testing.
The next day Anastacia's mom, Diane, answered the phone at her daughter's downtown Manhattan penthouse. "The doctor said, 'Anastacia is going to live a long life,' so my mom thought that meant great news," recalls the singer, who has sold more than 10 million records overseas but has yet to find the same success in the U.S. "But then he asked to talk to me, and his first words were, 'Your tissue was malignant. You have cancer.' He began saying how we'd caught the cancer early and that I had been really lucky. But I started crying. The tears were falling on the phone."
Diagnosed with Ductal Carcinoma In Situ (DCIS), in which the cancer cells are confined to the milk ducts of the breast, Anastacia quickly pushed ahead. Five days later she filmed a video for "Love Is a Crime," her song on the Chicago soundtrack. "I had to put cancer on the back burner," she says. Still on painkillers from her biopsy, "She was throwing up the entire shoot," says Lisa Braude, her friend and manager. "But if you saw the video, you'd never know." Soon after, Anastacia finally broke down: "I just let myself be totally sad. But after a week, I started getting my strength back."
Her spunk too. Disappointed with the type of post-op support bra she had been instructed to buy—"it was more of a harness"—Anastacia designed her own, using an exercise bra as a starting point. (She says she is now in talks to market her design.) With that ready to go, the day of the operation, Feb. 10, finally arrived. Although the surgery went smoothly, the recovery "was so painful," she says. Recuperating at home after a two-day hospital stay, "I was walking like Ozzy [Osbourne]. It was hard to even sit up." Harder still was taking a first look at her left breast. Because of reconstruction from the cancer surgery, "it looked," she says, "like a dented fender."
It was not the first time Anastacia's body had been through the wringer. The middle child of Diane Hurley, 60, a retired theater actress, and Robert Newkirk, 66, a singer, Anastacia was reared by her mom after her parents split up when she was 5. (Anastacia has no contact with her father.) At 13 she was diagnosed with the intestinal illness Crohn's disease and underwent surgery to remove part of her intestine, leaving a 6" scar that "is part of who I am. But when I was 13, it was pretty tragic." (Doctors say there is no link between the disease and her cancer.)
After graduating from the famed Professional Children's School in New York City, Anastacia bounced between jobs at restaurants and hair salons while trying to break into the music business. A '98 spot on an MTV talent show finally landed her a record deal, and in '00 she released her first album, Not That Kind, which went platinum overseas, followed by Freak of Nature a year later. "I'm not a big deal in America," says Anastacia. "But I'm starting."
First, though, she has to completely conquer her cancer. To ensure that all of the cancerous cells are gone, she will undergo six weeks of radiation therapy beginning next month. In the meantime, she is delighting in her almost fully healed breasts, which are now a C cup for the first time in her life. "I'm showing my breasts to every woman and gay man in the world!" she says. "They look natural and beautiful." Debuting her new look at Elton John's Oscar party in March "everyone came up to me after the show and said how great it was to see me onstage again," she says. "It meant a lot."
Currently dating a movie stuntman she declines to name—"it's fairly new, but it's so wonderful"—Anastacia is enjoying the small victories of her recovery. This month she was finally able to carry Freak, her 11-month-old Yorkshire terrier, in his shoulder bag. "It felt great!" she says. And she is now a passionate advocate for mammograms. "If there's anything I've learned from this," she says, "it's to get a mammogram early."
Anastacia knows that there is always a chance cancer could return, but for now she is celebrating her recovery. Four weeks after her surgery, she visited the L.A. lingerie store Agent Provocateur. "I wanted to be a vixen with my new set," she says. "I got a maroon bra because I've never had one in that color, and a pink bra for breast cancer. It just made me feel better about myself to wear something beautiful."
Ulrica Wihlborg in Los Angeles