Cindy Watts | The Tennessean
The pain that radiated through the left side of Kelly Lang’s body was sharp enough to make her drop her suitcase in the airport. A 36-year-old single mother who had just signed her first record deal, Lang was in Switzerland to play a few shows.
It was November of 2003 and it had been a year since the up-and-coming country singer had found two small, hard lumps in her breast during a self-exam. She asked her gynecologist about the nodules and was assured she was too young to have cancer. She knew her doctor was wrong.
"I felt like God kept giving me signals and hints," Lang said. "Every magazine I opened was like, ‘Have you had your diagnostic breast exam?’ It was just like screaming at me."
After the incident in the airport, she flew back to Nashville and insisted on having a diagnostic mammogram, which she paid for out-of-pocket. The photos came back clean, but she asked for an ultrasound as a follow-up. During the procedure, Lang moved the technician’s wand over the worrisome knots and watched her face fall into a grim line.
For the next year, Lang fought breast cancer, enduring radiation, chemotherapy, multiple surgeries, fear and pain in the fight for her life. She smiled for her children and her boyfriend, fellow country singer T.G. Sheppard. She screamed and cried in private and sought ways to lift her mood through humor, creating her alter ego XOXO. October is breast cancer awareness month, the perfect time, Lang thought, to share the story of her “life sentence.”
“The second I was diagnosed, I lived way more appreciatively,” Lang said, seated at the kitchen table in the Hendersonville home she shares with Sheppard, her husband since 2007. “I’m bolder at doing things, at writing songs. I’m not afraid to say what’s on my mind. I love bigger. I hug harder.”
'Everything just stops'
She got the call while she was Christmas shopping in Marshalls. As holiday songs played overhead and twinkle lights blinked the joy of the season, the doctor told Lang she had breast cancer.
“'This needs to be removed immediately,’” Lang remembers the doctor saying. “Cancer is a really big word. When you hear that, everything just stops.”
Lang had never heard of an oncologist, but she made an appointment. The singer had a lumpectomy and learned the disease was stage two and in her lymph nodes. She had a hysterectomy because the doctor was concerned it had spread to her reproductive organs. Then her doctor relayed that based on test results, she suspected cancer was in her pancreas – a death sentence.
Sheppard and Lang did not live together before they were married. She wouldn’t let him see her without her makeup and wig, and she had never cried in front of him. One morning after she took her daughters to school, she studied her reflection in her bathroom mirror. The green, bald and heavily scarred woman staring back at her was more than Lang could stand.
I thought, ‘Oh my God, I look like I’ve been through a war. I look like a monster,’” she recalls. “I just started screaming. Nobody was at my house. Nobody knew I was doing this. It was my first time to really let it go.”
Lang didn’t know that Sheppard had let himself into her home. At the sound of her wails, he burst into the bathroom, terrified. Sheppard wrapped Lang’s robe around her, pulled her down onto the floor and rocked her.
“I said, ‘You need to leave. I am not going to live. You don’t deserve this. You didn’t want to get married before this. Now is your open door. It’s your time to go,’” Lang said.
But Sheppard held her hand, kissed her bald head, told her she was beautiful and promised he would never leave her. And, he hasn’t.
“A lot of people don’t realize that when your partner in life has cancer, you have cancer with them,” Sheppard said. “You don’t feel the pain, but you feel their emotions so strongly so therefore you go through it together if there’s real love there. You share it.”
In an effort to feed her wounded spirit, Lang created her over-the-top comedic character, XOXO. With teased hair, too much makeup, a sharp tongue and dripping in rhinestones, XOXO is the anthesis of the sophisticated and conservative Lang. Aided by Sheppard, writing for the caricature of a wannabe country singer was a needed distraction.
“She’s really embedded into me,” Lang said. “The more the makeup went on, the more I got into character. You have to bloom where you’re planted. Some days I had to force myself to laugh or force myself to come up with a comedy scene. T.G. would see that I was blue, and those days he’d say, ‘Let’s write a song for XO about it. What would XO say?’ It would immediately bring me back up again.”
The night before Lang was scheduled for a PET scan to look for pancreatic cancer, her friends, including fellow singers Sharon White and Carol Lee Cooper, came over to pray for healing. The women laid their hands on Lang and asked God that the cancer cells line up and march out of her body. Lang said she was “shaking like a leaf” when she walked in to get the test results. No trace of terminal cancer had been found.
“The doctor said, ‘This is maybe a mistake,’” Lang said. “And I said, ‘No, it’s called a miracle.’”
Today Lang is determined to share her XOXO character with the public, convinced that her antics can bring joy to others in their time of need, just as she did for Lang.
“She’s been married seven times, but she loves men," Lang said of XOXO. "She’s not done getting married yet. Anything you’re not supposed to do as a country artist that a PR person would be dying over, she does boldly.”
FROM EARLIER THIS YEAR:John Schneider, T.G. Sheppard, Kelly Lang lead Country for a Cause concert
Lang's friend Olivia Newton-John is battling breast cancer for the third time and said she's finding joy and comfort in her former duet partner's XOXO.
“I feel that her comedic character XOXO is where she shines even brighter," Newton-John said. "XOXO is hilarious, and she brings a smile to my face just looking at her. She plays this character so seamlessly well, you can’t see where Kelly begins and XOXO ends."
Lang’s XOXO has already appeared on Blue Collar Comedy on Sirius XM, Mike Huckabee’s “Huckabee” show and appeared at Zanies. Lang and XOXO have two television series on Heartland this fall, and Lang will co-host the Christmas 4 Kids benefit with Sheppard Nov. 19 at Ryman Auditorium.
The singer’s goals for XOXO are lofty – the pinnacle, Lang said, is performing as XOXO on the Grand Ole Opry. She likens the character to a modern-day Minnie Pearl and thinks the audience will enjoy the humor. She also wants to see XOXO’s face on the billboard on 21st Avenue and would love to perform as her own opening act.
“The journey that I’ve been on is the only one I can talk about, and humor and music is the way I get through it,” Lang said. “If I can make a difference in someone’s life or take fear away, that matters to me.”