Bif Naked is thankful she had breast cancer.
Sitting in her manager’s Vancouver condo with her beloved 14-year-old Maltese, Nicklas, in her lap, the tiny, black-clad Vancouver rocker says she is appreciative of her two-year struggle with the disease that resulted in 13 months of chemotherapy and the removal of her ovaries in order to ensure the cancerous cells didn’t spread.
“It was amazing. I’m so happy I went through it, honestly, because it was a fantastic opportunity to experience that as a writer, as a performer and as a human,” she says. “To be able to work with other people and be like, ‘yeah, I absolutely understand,’ I’m glad I went through it.”
Born Beth Torbert on June 15, 1971, in India, the American-Canadian singer has always been known for her upbeat, confident personality, which she credits with helping her through her recovery.
Following chemo, she admits, her outlook on life was not radically altered immediately.
But she began to assess things she considered detrimental to her, and soon realized there were several things she needed to change.
“I began to make adjustments very quickly. Before, I would prefer to sacrifice myself rather than pipe up about something that was bothering me. But I found that after cancer, with things that were terribly uncool, now I will say, ‘I don’t think I survived cancer to do this.’
“I’ll convince myself I have a right to speak up about something that is not OK, that is something new for me.”
For some, it may be hard to imagine Bif, who is brimming with confidence and positive energy, as ever being timid or even vulnerable – and for the most part, she says, she is anything but. However, she admits life after cancer was a big transformation.
The removal of her ovaries in 2009 catapulted her into menopause at the age of 39, coinciding with a tour to promote her latest album, The Promise, a collection of songs written and produced while undergoing treatment.
Her return to the stage just weeks after surgery, however, left her with a heavy heart.
“I still had my chemo hair and I just had my oophorectomy, so I still had my stitches, but I did a tour and after that I swore I would never go on tour again. I was so self-conscious and so stupid.
“I look out into the crowd and there is not a single face out there, it’s just all iPhones. Our culture is now that; all you perform to is iPhones, not faces.”
The experience left her feeling as though she was on display as a “dancing cancer monkey.” And, subsequently, every show on the tour was a repeat of the same thing: a crowd of phones.
She eventually realized that the cellphone phenomena had nothing to do with her, or with cancer, or with music – but everything to do with the immediacy-obsessed culture we now live in.
“People are able to capture what they are seeing and instantly put it in the universe. I kind of had to get over my self-consciousness, but it’s been a struggle.”
The following year, she faced her next challenge, with the end of her three-year marriage to Vancouver sports writer Ian Walker.
Turning to yoga to deal with the grief, she found that being in a class with other students was a struggle as her emotions seeped out; she felt exposed and embarrassed.
“Last year, I was going through heartbreak, so every time I was in Shavasana, I would start crying and I wouldn’t even know it. I started feeling self-conscious and stopped going to class altogether – and the gym – because everyone kept asking me about my last marriage.”
This forced Bif to develop ways to stay fit on her own at home. She switched her focus from training and bodybuilding to restoration of her mind, body and soul.
“After 20 years, I stopped running, not just physically, but in my head. I stopped running and I sat down and I asked what are my needs and priorities. They’re not getting my body fat down anymore, because I don’t give a f—.”
After reaching an emotional plateau, she began focusing on her passion for people and the need for more open discussion about cancer.
She recalls her own experience following her diagnosis, walking in hospitals and seeing patients in their own bubble, eyes down and not speaking.
The atmosphere was one of fear and anxiety, forcing Bif to break that uncomfortable silence with discussion to ease their worries and her own.
“There’s so many multilayers to each person’s story, like little onions. Everyone is like a little walking onion. I was, like, no way, so I went up to people and I spoke to them and I was, like, ‘let’s not be upset, let’s talk about it.’”
With no family living in the province, she received comfort from other patients, and reciprocated that care and compassion.
She also volunteered for whatever she could in order to speak to women going through the same challenges, taking part in trials to reach out to others and find out all she could about her illness.
One trial she participated in was an experience she compared to being in an army, huddled in the trenches, during a war.
“I was in a trial with 100 bald women and nobody knew what anyone’s job was, none of these women ever heard of me and they didn’t care – it was wonderful. We were all in the trenches together and it was the best thing that ever happened to me.
“If I didn’t have that, or the other patients to be around, I don’t know what would have become of me.”
Knowing firsthand the comfort that comes from speaking to someone who can relate to the tumultuous emotions experienced with cancer, it became evident she was put in the position to do something.
“I think my job is kind of like saying, ‘hey, let’s talk about it,’” she said. “If I can encourage people to be more brave, then that’s great. I think I’ve done what I’m really meant to do.”
With two albums set to come out this year and an autobiography in the works, the Juno Award-winning rocker is excited to be embarking on a new journey in her life.
“I feel like an opening flower and I’ve never felt that way before. It’s new to me. It’s truly a shift for me and discovering it has been really cool. I’m finally finding my own voice.”