How Olivia Newton-John’s cancer campaign inspired millions

Grease may have catapulted Dame Olivia Newton-John to fame, but her breast cancer campaign will be just as central to her legacy.

The 73-year-old “died peacefully” in Southern California on Monday surrounded by friends and family, her widower John Easterling said in a brief statement.

She was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 1992, which returned in 2013 in her shoulder and again in 2017, this time in her spine.

Her long experience with the disease made her a fierce advocate for cancer awareness.

The Grammy Award-winning singer, who starred as Sandy in the hit musical Grease, established the Olivia Newton-John Foundation Fund, an independent charity that sponsors global research into plant medicine for cancer.

The charity says it is “committed to realizing a world beyond cancer”, through ground-breaking scientific research into less invasive ways of treating the disease, and her family asked well-wishers to support it in her memory.

She also founded the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness and Research Center in Melbourne, Australia, a public hospital dedicated to innovative treatments and wellness programs to support patients’ mental health.

The cancer facility is also a hub for research, with more than 200 clinical trials underway focusing on immunotherapy – which helps the body’s immune system recognize and fight cancer cells – and personalized medicine diagnostics.

When asked in a September 2018 interview with Australia’s Channel 7 if she was scared after her third cancer diagnosis, Dame Olivia said “I think I’ll get over it” and vowed “that’s my goal”.

But in a typically candid admission, she added: “I’d be lying if I said I never go there. There are moments; IAM a human. If I allowed myself to go there, I could easily create that great fear. But my husband is always there and he is there to support me.”

Dame Olivia, who underwent a partial mastectomy following her diagnosis in 1992, revealed in 2018 that she used a holistic health regimen that included cannabis/cannabidiol, also known as medical marijuana.

She explained that her husband grew marijuana for her and made tinctures for her to consume along with herbal medicine, as she did not like taking prescription drugs and found it helped with anxiety, sleep and pain.

In the same year, she had to learn to walk again when the disease spread and she broke her spine.

Only last year, when her cancer was at stage four, she appeared on the BBC’s The One Show with her daughter Chloe Rose Lattanzi to say that “every day is a gift”.

“Oh no, I’m fine, I just — listen, I’ve had metastatic breast cancer for the past seven years, but I feel fine,” she said. “I feel really amazing.”

The Hopelessly Devoted To You singer campaigned for kinder ways of dealing with cancer, apart from the traditional treatments she underwent of surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

But it was the positive outlook of Dame Olivia, who was born in Cambridge and lived most of her life in Australia and the US, that captivated many.

She told the Guardian in 2020 that cancer was “the journey of my life – it gave me purpose and intention and taught me a lot about compassion”.

She rejected two stereotypes that are widely used about cancer – the first was terminology around “battles” and the second was “death sentence” predictions by doctors about how long a cancer patient can live.

“I don’t see myself as having cancer,” she told the newspaper in an interview. “I choose not to see it as a fight either because I don’t like war. I don’t like fighting anywhere – whether it’s outside or an actual war inside my body.

“I choose not to see it that way. I want to get my body healthy and back into balance. Part of it is your mental attitude towards it. If you think, ‘Poor me’ or ‘I’m sick,’ you’re going to get sick.”

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