Olivia Newton-John was a British-Australian singer, actress, and activist, most famous for starring with John Travolta in the 1978 musical film, Grease, whose soundtrack is still today one of the world’s best-selling albums. Her recordings have sold more than 100 million records, and she won four Grammy Awards.
In 1992, at age 44, she was first diagnosed with breast cancer. Her diagnosis came the same weekend that her father died of liver cancer. She was treated with a partial mastectomy, chemotherapy and breast reconstruction. Later she tried herbal formulas, meditation, and mind-training for wellness. Her cancer went into remission for 20 years, but returned in 2013. She was in a minor traffic accident and while patting herself down she found a lump on her right shoulder. When the lump did not go away, she had tests that showed that her breast cancer had returned. She was treated and appeared to be doing very well.
In 2015, she created The Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness & Research Center in Melbourne, Australia, which does clinical trials on cancer treatments and treats cancer patients. In 2017, 25 years after she was first diagnosed with breast cancer, she was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer, meaning that the cancer had spread through her body. In her case, the cancer caused severe back pain. She was treated with photon radiation therapy, and medicinal cannabis to help control her horrible bone pain. On August 8, 2022, at age 73, she died of metastasized breast cancer at her home in Santa Ynez Valley, California.
Newton-John was born on September 16, 1948 in Cambridge, England, into an incredibly gifted intellectual and musical family of famous academics and jurists. Her mother was a musician and the daughter of physicist and Nobel-Prize winner Max Born, who left Germany in 1933 to escape the Nazi holocaust (Born had worked with Albert Einstein and won the Nobel Prize for discovering the photoelectric effect in 1921). Newton-John’s father, Brin Newton-John, was an accomplished singer who was drafted into the M15 British intelligence, where he extracted crucial information about the German military from Nazi leaders including Rudolf Hess, and worked with Alan Turing to help break the Nazi Enigma codes in which top-secret German communications were encrypted. Brin also helped to build the first modern computer. After the war ended, when Olivia was six years old, the family moved from England to Australia where her father headed one of the colleges at the University of Melbourne. Her parents later divorced and Olivia was raised by her mother.
Newton-John was singing successfully at nightclubs in Australia by age 14 and followed that by singing and performing in clubs and on television in England in the 1960s. In the early 1970s, she performed in the United States and in 1973 her third solo album “Let Me Be There” won a Grammy Award for best country female vocal performance. She followed that with “Have You Never Been Mellow” and “I Honestly Love You,” which won a 1974 Grammy. In 1978, even though she was 28 years old and had an Australian accent, she starred as a high school senior in the movie version of the Broadway musical Grease with John Travolta, which became the biggest hit movie of the year. She started a family in the 1980s and in 1992 she was diagnosed with breast cancer, but she continued to sing and act.
Breast Cancer Risk Factors
Newton-John had a terrible family history of cancer. Just before she was first diagnosed with breast cancer 1992, her father died of liver cancer at age 78. In 2013, her elder sister, Rona, died at age 72 from a brain tumor and in 2019, her older brother Hugh, a doctor, died at age 80 from cancer. Various studies estimate that genetic mutations account for 5-25 percent of all breast cancers, but that means that lifestyle factors account for about 75 percent. We do not know what causes breast cancer, but we do know that many things that you do or are exposed to, are associated with increased risk for breast cancer, such as:
• Exposure to chemicals that act like the female hormone, estrogen: some plastics, certain cosmetics and cosmetic products, pesticides, polychlorinated biphenyls (BPH).
• Using oral contraceptives. A few years after you stop taking birth control pills, the risk declines to normal.
• Possibly injectable birth control progesterone, depot-medroxyprogesterone acetate. Risk decreases after you stop taking it.
• Postmenopausal hormone therapy using estrogen and progesterone together.
• Drinking alcohol. In any amount, alcohol appears to increase many different cancer risks.
• Being overweight. Fat cells make estrogen which increases breast cancer risk. Excess weight raises blood insulin levels which increases cancer risk.
• Gaining weight. Women who are thin as teens and fat as adults are at higher risk for breast cancer than those who were fat all their lives.
• Storing fat primarily in your belly. People who store fat primarily in their belly also store fat primarily in their liver, which increases insulin levels to raise breast cancer risk.
• Lack of exercise. In one study, just 1.25 to 2.5 hours per week of brisk walking reduced breast cancer risk 18 percent (Control Clinical Trials, 2002;23:728-756).
• Tobacco smoke, including second-hand and third-hand smoke.
• Not having children. The more children, the lower the risk.
• Having first child after age 30
• Breast-feeding (reduces number of menstrual cycles)
Factors that may increase breast cancer risk include:
• Eating red meat, processed meat and deep fried foods.
• Not eating lots of fruits and vegetables.
• A high-fat diet. Some studies show that breast cancer is less common in countries where people eat a low-fat diet.
• Some studies show increased risk for breast cancer in women with higher levels of certain vitamins. No studies show that taking vitamins prevents breast cancer.
• Night shift work.
Newton-John lived for thirty years after her initial diagnosis, and the Wellness & Research Center she established in Melbourne will continue her efforts to improve survival for breast cancer patients. Increasing numbers of studies show that breast, prostate and colon cancers are associated with certain lifestyle factors and that changing these factors can reduce your chances of suffering these cancers in the first place and preventing recurrences and prolonging your life if you already have these cancers.
See Breast Cancer Survival Improves with Healthful Lifestyles
Dame Olivia Newton-John
September 26, 1948 – August 8, 2022