Cancer diagnosis leads singer to 'fight like a girl'
By JULI THANKI
Jul. 07, 2018
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Last August, Anita Cochran spent a mundane Thursday evening curled up on the couch watching home remodeling shows on HGTV.
But then the country artist absentmindedly scratched an itch and discovered a lump in her right breast.
In a matter of days, she underwent an exam, a mammogram and a biopsy before receiving her diagnosis: Stage 2 breast cancer.
"Panic set in," she remembered. "It's all really confusing, and you've got to move. You can't just sit there."
Sitting still has never been one of Cochran's strengths, anyway.
At age five, having mastered two songs — "Amazing Grace" and "Folsom Prison Blues" — she joined her parents' country-gospel band. She spent countless hours learning how to play guitar and her weekends were spent traveling to gigs.
When Cochran released her debut record, "Back to You," in 1997, critics praised her "pure heartbreak soprano" and "impressive songwriting ability" found on songs like "What If I Said," her chart-topping duet with Steve Wariner.
Even more impressive, she was one of the first women signed to a major label to write, co-produce, sing and play multiple lead instruments on a country album.
"What If I Said" was her only single to crack the Top 40, but in the two decades since its release, Cochran has toured internationally, sung on albums by Terri Clark and Ty Herndon, produced a record for Tammy Cochran (no relation) and served as the music director for a musical about the life of late country great Conway Twitty. She was always moving.
Until her diagnosis.
Because of her cancer's aggressiveness, last summer Cochran, 51, began four different chemotherapy drugs, administered every three weeks through a port on the upper left side of her chest.
Her first dose of chemotherapy sent Cochran's immune system into a tailspin; her white blood cell count plummeted and she was hospitalized. Then her oncologist told her she could no longer tour. If she was on an airplane or shook hands with someone who had a cold, her body would be unable to fight off the bug.
Sitting in her Franklin home studio, Cochran remembers her reaction to being pulled off the road: "What? How am I going to live?"
No matter how badly she wanted to, Cochran couldn't have toured anyway. She was too weak and exhausted to carry instruments and luggage through an airport terminal. Most days, she was in too much pain to do more than shuffle between the bed and the couch.
Chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy caused numbness and pain in her hands and feet. Her guitars gathered dust and the calluses she'd formed on her fingertips after more than 40 years of fretting strings disappeared.
As awful as it made her feel, the chemo did its job, shrinking Cochran's tumor by more than 50 percent.
She underwent a double mastectomy in late February; both breasts and one of her lymph nodes were removed. The incisions healed, but lingering soreness combined with her port's placement made it hard to use a guitar strap for any length of time.
Cochran was unable to work, and bills piled up.
The Nashville music community rallied around her. Friends set up a Go Fund Me page and country star Terri Clark organized a '90s country-themed benefit concert at 3rd and Lindsley in late March.
"Not one (musician) said no. If they were available, they were there...there were some that don't even know Anita that well, and said yes," said Clark, who's been a friend of Cochran's for more than 20 years. "The benefit for Anita was hands down the most amazing musical and spiritual experience, as a whole, that I've experienced in Nashville in the 32 years I've lived here."
Cochran, who'd played myriad benefit shows over the years, was initially angry that her illness put her on the receiving end of a fundraiser. But that changed when she got to the club.
"I felt like I died, went to heaven and was looking down on my memorial service," she remembered. "I was so blessed to see and feel the love from everybody."
The concert, which featured performances by Crystal Gayle, Wynonna Judd, Wade Hayes, Mandy Barnett, Pam Tillis, Steve Wariner and more, raised approximately $12,000.
During his set, Wariner invited Cochran on stage and together, they sang "What If I Said."
"She nailed it," said Wariner when discussing the emotional duet. "I was trying not to look at her because she had tears in her eyes (and) I had tears."
It was the first time Cochran had been on stage in months, and though her chest hurt with every breath, it felt "amazing" to be performing again.
She says she's been cancer-free for four months. However, she'll continue chemotherapy until October and, though she's played a handful of local events, likely won't be able to resume touring until at least 2019. But now she's got a different mission.
After her diagnosis, Cochran started the blog "Journey to Healing" on her website, anitacochranmusic.com. For nearly a year, she's shared — maybe overshared, she admits — every step of her treatment and recovery.
"I didn't want anyone to have to go through what I did, this crash course of 'Oh, my God, learn everything,' " she explained. "Maybe my journey can help people. I feel like that's my purpose now."
She's just released a new country-rock song called "Fight Like a Girl." Though it was written about her cancer, the disease is never mentioned in the song. Said Cochran, "I wanted it to be about any kind of fight that a woman goes through."
Her energy is slowly returning, and Cochran is eager to get back in the studio. She's started writing songs for an EP that she wants to release in October, National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
It's difficult to fathom, but Cochran has found many bright moments during the last 10 months. Life's little annoyances no longer seem so irritating, and simple things — playing with her two dogs or mowing the grass when she has the energy — bring a new joy.
Though she's still adjusting to what she calls her "new normal," she's not ready to throw in the towel: "I've got a lot of livin' left."
Information from: The Tennessean, http://www.tennessean.com