‘She was the light at the end of the tunnel’: Olivia Newton-John’s incredible 30-year cancer crusade

On the same weekend 30 years ago when Dame Olivia Newton-John was grieving the death of her father, Bryn, to cancer, she went public with the shocking news she had been diagnosed with breast cancer.

It was 1992.

A darling of the stage and screen, the British-born and Melbourne-raised star abruptly cancelled a 16-city US concert tour promoting her latest album, Back to Basics, and within 24 hours, checked herself into the Cedars-Sinai Medical Centre in Los Angeles for emergency surgery.

Too upset to talk, and in shock, the next few days would mark a major turning point in her life.

‘‘I underwent a partial mastectomy, chemotherapy and breast reconstruction. I did herbal formulas, meditation and focused on a vision of complete wellness,’’ she later wrote.

‘‘The whole experience has given me much understanding and compassion, so much so that I wanted to help others going through the same journey.’’

She did just that.

In a partnership with the Austin Hospital in Melbourne’s inner north, the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness and Research Centre (ONJ Centre) was born in 2012, with donations from 200,000 members of the public totalling $17 million.

She remained cancer-free until a recurrence in 2013, and was diagnosed with cancer for the third time five years later.

Sadly, after raising awareness through countless fundraising to find alternative treatments and cures for cancer, Newton-John, 73, lost her cancer battle surrounded by her family and friends at her Southern California ranch on August 8.

Melbourne lit up in pink for Olivia Newton-John. Photo: Ross McGravie

Director of the Austin Health Foundation that raises funds for the ONJ Centre, Debbie Shiell, told The New Daily her legacy will live on forever in the centre.

“Even though her journey has come to an end, she has been a beacon of strength and a beacon of light for so many people,’’ Ms Shiell said.

‘‘I am in awe of her generosity and her strength. Truly, there are no words … that would adequately describe it. It was a gift to be around her and to see it.’’

‘A founding champion’

People magazine reported in 1992, after that first diagnosis, her family friend Brian Goldsmith, formerly married to Olivia’s sister Rona, said Newton-John would bounce back quickly.

“Because she’s chosen to go public about her breast cancer, it might save thousands of lives,” he said.

“That something good might come of something that’s awful for her, I think will make her happy.”

That it did.

Throughout Newton-John’s 30-year cancer journey, she has continued to remain positive, and, over the past 10 years, used her celebrity to raise funds for the ONJ centre to treat the mind, the body and the spirit.

She wanted to be referred to as the ‘‘founding champion’’, rather than patron, Ms Shiell said.

Her support provided hope and changed the lives of thousands of cancer patients who have been treated onsite, where everything is on offer from medical acupuncture and art therapy to exercise physiology, meditation, yoga and music therapy, largely thanks to Newton-John’s direction and dedication.

‘‘Olivia’s legacy, she was integrally involved in the building of the centre and the fundraising for the centre, in the colours chosen, the textures, the light, the programs we offered, she always wanted more programs,’’ Ms Shiell said.

‘‘She was an integral part of what we offer here’’ … and was ‘‘the light at the end of the tunnel for many, many people’’.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said ‘‘the work she did though her cancer research centre was important and inspirational’’.

‘‘Her legacy will live on, in her music, her films and her determination that one day we will find a cure for cancer,’’ he wrote on Twitter on Monday afternoon.

The ONJ Centre, which has set up a page for tributes and donations, is planning a memorial service.

Olivia’s Walk for Wellness will still go ahead as planned on October 9 and the government is working with family on a state funeral.

Olivia Newton-John with carer Shirley Archer and patient Ana Noronha before the formal opening of the Olivia Newton John Cancer & Wellness Centre. Photo: Getty

In 2017, the Grease singer announced she was cancelling a tour due to the recurrence of her breast cancer, which had metastasised to her back and would be undergoing treatment at the centre.

‘‘She called herself the undercover boss and she got to experience the beautiful therapies and the programs. Nobody wants to be in hospital, but she was happy to be here and got to experience everything she created and feel all the love and light around her as she was seeking treatment.’’

The singer said she was treating the illness ‘‘naturally’’ and was using cannabis oil made from marijuana her husband since 2008, John Easterling, grows in California to alleviate the pain.

Never one to give up, she established the US-based Olivia Newton-John Foundation.

‘‘Olivia has been a symbol of triumphs and hope for over 30 years sharing her journey with breast cancer,’’ Mr Easterling said in an  Instagram post announcing Newton-John had died.

‘‘Her healing inspiration and pioneering experience with plant medicine continues with the Olivia Newton-John Foundation Fund, dedicated to researching plant medicine and cancer.’’

Olivia Newton-John and her husband John Easterling celebrate as they lead the inaugural Wellness Walk in 2013 in Melbourne. Photo: Getty

A headline act

Newton-John became the face of the annual Wellness Walk to raise funds for the centre, and returned for several years after the inaugural walk in 2013.

In an August 2020 sit-down panel interview on Ten’s The Project, with her 36-year-old daughter singer and actor Chloe Lattanzi by her side, she was asked about the Stage 4 diagnosis.

‘‘I believe your belief system is part of the healing,’’ she said.

‘‘My last MRI, which is an exam where they look inside, things are shrinking, going away or staying the same and I am living well with it and feeling great,’’ she said, receiving a round of applause from the audience.

During Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October, Newton-John spoke to entertainment TV program, ExtraTV, from her home.

She told Australian host Renee Bargh when asked how she was, she replied: “I don’t know that I’m ‘cancer free’, but I’m stable, and I’m feeling well … so I feel very fortunate.’’

Sitting in front of her favourite blue piano, she shared candid details about her seven-month vegan diet, eating lots of vegetables and using the cannabis drops.

‘‘I’ve been going through my journey with cancer since 1992, and it comes and goes,’’ she said.

She said she was continuing to fundraise for her ONJ Fund, for ‘‘kinder cures for cancer using plant medicine’’.

And after receiving the Order of the Rising Sun Award in Japan in February, she told NHK World Japan she wants to help other people, as she’s been there with the cancer battle, and ‘‘I don’t ever want other people to go through what I have gone through, so that is what inspires me’’.

On April 16, she shared one of her last photos, standing among a field of bright yellow, smiling sunflowers, where she wished everyone a Happy Easter.

As she reflected to NHK: ‘‘It’s been a wonderful ride.’’

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