When her mother was succumbing to breast cancer, Trisha Yearwood didn’t offer her any deathbed promises to carry on the fight against the dreaded disease. But then she didn’t have to. Her parents, Jack and Gwen Yearwood, had already brought up their daughter with a drive to do good.
Since her mother’s death in 2011, Yearwood, 54, has worked to raise money and awareness about breast cancer in numerous public ways. But on Monday, she chose a private act of generosity, partnering with the American Cancer Society and JCPenney to host an intimate luncheon for 14 Nashville-area breast cancer survivors at her home in a Nashville suburb. Over a meal of healthy dishes from the Grammy-winning singer’s popular cookbooks, the women shared their personal stories of the disease that will strike more than 300,000 Americans this year.
A cancer diagnosis, of course, is a terrible life event, “but the thing that is positive is the community it forms, of people coming together,” Yearwood told PEOPLE sitting in her sunroom before the event. “And so this is just a celebration of that — of the good part.”
Yearwood said she knew her mother “would have loved” the luncheon, and she made sure her mom’s presence was felt by putting a dish on the menu that she had developed, a “chickless” pot pie. “She adopted a plant-based diet when she was going through treatment,” Yearwood explained, “and I think it gave her a lot of extra time, and good time.”
After the luncheon, Yearwood marveled at the women’s gratitude. “These ladies were thanking me for having them at my house for a meal,” she said, “but really, I just wanted to thank them for sharing their lives with me for just a little bit, and allowing me to be a part of their journey in a small way.”
Yearwood said she was especially moved by the women’s “strength and resilience.” One told the story of learning her diagnosis when she was nine weeks’ pregnant; she endured chemo, delivered a healthy baby and is now cancer-free. Another woman, concerned about her symptoms, pushed doctors after a mammogram and ultrasound found no cause for alarm. “She was right,” Yearwood reported, “and an MRI confirmed her suspicions.”
That account underscored Yearwood’s conviction that “you’re your best advocate. You know your body better than anyone else. Our generation is better than our parents were because they thought, ‘I’m not going to say anything if the doctor doesn’t notice anything.’”
Though Yearwood was inspired by her mother’s toughness — “she was a fighter until the last second” — Yearwood also wished that her mother had been more vigilant about her breast health. “She was a woman who hadn’t been to a gynecologist since I was born,” she said. “It’s so important to push awareness and do this for yourself, to go get your checkup once a year.”
“I’m probably busier than ever,” she said, adding that she’s savoring this time in her life. Noting she’s celebrating her 55th birthday on Thursday, she said, “I think when you get older you become more comfortable with just being who you are.”
That comfort level, she said, can be heard on Every Girl, her first country album in 12 years. “This time I felt unafraid to say I’m really putting myself 100 percent into this and I’m not holding anything back,” Yearwood said. “I’m usually a little bit conservative in that I don’t wear my heart on my sleeve. But music is the place you get a chance to do that, and it feels good. Whatever happens, I’m so happy with this record. I could not have done anything differently, and that’s the way you want to feel.”
The album is on sale nationwide; $2 from every copy purchased at JCPenney will go to support the American Cancer Society.