By Kevin Begos
Breaking Open the Silence
Singer-songwriter Beth Nielsen Chapman talks honestly about family, music and cancer
By Kevin Begos
The studio has 11 or 12 guitars in one corner, a piano, microphones, pictures of angels, statues of the Virgin Mary and Buddha, and glass doors that open out to a porch.
It’s cheerful and thoughtful, much like Beth Nielsen Chapman, 50, who sits back on a couch and talks about surviving cancer and losing someone you love to it, and how the disease affects family, friends and making art.
Chapman is a Nashville singer-songwriter whose lyrics have inspired numerous fans, as well as artists such as Elton John and Faith Hill. Her husband, Ernest, died of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1994. Six years later she faced breast cancer herself, with lumpectomy, chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Chapman had to begin the emotional relationship with the disease all over again—and so did her son, who was just 13 when his father died.
Chapman says accepting grief was one of the first things she learned.
“Grief is this thing that sort of has its own agenda,” she says. “You can’t just say, ‘I’m going to grieve now.’ My grief was so big that I felt like I just couldn’t even approach it. And so when my husband died, I didn’t really cry for about the first year.” Instead, she focused on raising her son and on searching for ways to live a healthier life. She started to pay much more attention to diet and explored Qigong, Reiki, meditation and other alternative therapies.
“I could really feel those kind of things help sort of dislodge this big grief iceberg. And that and writing songs got me eking towards working through it,” she says.
One of Chapman’s almost spiritual songs about grief and loss attracted Elton John, who sang Sand and Water on tour in memory of Princess Diana. Her exuberant This Kiss hit the top of the charts for country artist Faith Hill, and Chapman’s career seemed to be taking off. When her gynecologist repeatedly said the lentil-sized lump in her breast was nothing to worry about, that seemed like good news, too.
“That was a disastrous thing to believe, because I said, ‘Oh great!’ and jumped back into my crazy life,” she recalls.
The lentil grew to the size of a grape. Chapman felt more and more worn out and finally insisted on an ultrasound, which indicated breast cancer. The missed diagnosis was doubly devastating because now she didn’t trust doctors yet had a stage II cancer in urgent need of treatment. “The thing that’s alarming to me is the number of women I get letters from who say, ‘My doctor did the same thing,’ ” says Chapman.