Olivia Newton-John, Diagnosed at age 44
Treatment: Surgery, Chemotherapy, Radical Mastectomy, Reconstruction
Breast cancer does not discriminate—just ask mother, actress and singer Olivia Newton-John. Here, she shares her story of facing fear and winning.
Q: Did you ever think about breast cancer before your own diagnosis in 1992?
A: A dear friend of mine was diagnosed only three months before I was, and our little circle immediately said, "Oh my God! She's got cancer!" There's something about the word itself that's so scary. So when I got it, I had to come to the realization—and it took awhile—that cancer isn't necessarily a death sentence. Millions of women go through it and then lead productive, healthy lives. But at the time it felt overwhelming.
Q: So, you and your friend were facing it together.
A: Yes. She'd had surgery and was already going through chemo when I was diagnosed. Then, a few years later, a third girlfriend got it—three women from my immediate group—all in their 40s. A housewife, a flight attendant and me. Unbelievable.
Q: Did you friend's diagnosis motivate you to conduct self-exams?
A: I've always had regular exams, because I've had a few [benign] lumps before—you know, cysts—so I went periodically to my surgeon for check-ups. But this particular time, I didn't feel right—I just knew something was wrong. I had a small lump and it hurt. The mammogram came back negative, but my doctor was persistent—we both had a feeling. We did the biopsy and I found out that I had breast cancer, the same weekend my father died.
Q: How did you possibly handle that?
A: I think we compartmentalize things, deal with what we have to. I had so little time to mourn. I went through the surgery, then started chemo—
A: Pretty much. I was comfortable with my care—which is so important—and I trusted my oncologist. When you're first diagnosed, people are pulling you in every direction: Do this! Do that! You really have to gather yourself, because you're the one who has to make the hard choices. I researched a lot and felt satisfied with my course of treatment. It was sort of an East-meets-West approach.
Q: You mean the spiritual as well as the physical?
A: Yes, both. I meditated every day, did yoga, used homeopathy, ate well—I boosted my inner strength as much as I could. When bad thoughts came in, I pushed them right out. I had what's called a modified radical mastectomy with reconstruction done to my breast immediately—a woman can be traumatized waking up with nothing there.
Q: How long did your treatment last, and how long have you been cancer-free?
A: Treatment lasted nearly a year. It was difficult, but I focused on staying positive. I've been free of it for five years now. Some say, "Oh, you're in remission," but I answer, "No, this is over and done. It's behind me." Part of my motivation to speak on the subject is because I don't want my daughter, Chloe , to go through this.
Q: Is there a history of breast cancer in your family?
A: No, not at all. When Chloe asks me, "Am I going to get it because you did?" I want to be able to tell her, "No!" with absolute confidence. Why is it so prevalent? Is it environment? Let's find a cure, but let's also find out the "why."
Q: You're a committed environmentalist. Do you think there could be a connection?
A: There might be. I'm the national spokesperson for Children's Health Environmental Coalition—it looks at the link between environmental toxins and the increase in cancer and other illnesses in children. We need more research. I've never smoked or drank, I've taken good care of myself—so what caused my breast cancer?
Q: With the re-release of Grease and a new album coming out, Back With a Heart, you're obviously more than surviving—you're thriving.
A: I feel great. And I'm turning 50 this year! You know, I used to fear getting older, dying. I've known women who want to pretend their fiftieth isn't happening. This experience has really changed me. Now I wake up and I'm so grateful for each and every morning.I'm thrilled to get older. And I'm no longer afraid.
"As seen in Vogue, Glamour, Mademoiselle, Self, Allure and Conde Nast Sports for Women, May 1998"