Olivia Newton-John’s
Cancer Journey

How the pop star became a tireless activist and health advocate.

May 2012

By Allan Richter

During a March concert in Australia, Olivia Newton-John cut a defiant figure as she strutted across the Sydney Opera House stage to the feverish Latin rhythms of “Not Gonna Give In to It,” a song she wrote about the breast cancer she beat. With the song’s final note, she thrust her fist in the air.

It was a grand moment that had little to do with the larger-than-life Sydney Philharmonic Orches­tra behind her and everything to do with the contrast between the confident figure onstage and the woman whose cancer once nearly forced her retirement.

Newton-John had just finished treatment for breast cancer in 1992 when she retreated to her home near Byron Bay, at the easternmost point of Australia, to recuperate. The singer was considering retiring when her muses came calling. One was a stranger on the street who was a cancer survivor and uttered a few words of encouragement. The other was song.

“I kept waking up in the middle of the night with these songs in my head,” Newton-John, 63, recalls in an interview. “I would get up and put them down in my tape recorder, and then listened to them back and thought, ‘I want to put them down in some form.’” Those songs, “Not Gonna Give In to It” among them, became her often meditative 1994 album “Gaia: One Woman’s Journey.” “I’m very proud of those songs because they’re very raw,” she says.

In the years that followed, along with embracing music’s therapeutic powers, Newton-John immersed herself in complementary health, both as personal practice and as an activist promoting cancer prevention, early detection and environmental health. They are dynamics that have carried her from the uncertain, introspective period shortly following her breast cancer diagnosis and treatment to the fiercely tenacious health and environmental advocate she has become.

Aussie Wellness at
Gaia Retreat

Like the taste of the Gaia Retreat & Spa’s dahl, a delicious, hearty lentil dish, the wintergreen and eucalyptus scent in the retreat’s steamrooms is soft and subtle. The better to slowly take in this well-appointed retreat set on 25 acres at the highest point of its shire. Gaia may have celebrity allure from its famous owner, but its star is clearly its setting and endless breathtaking vistas. You can take in some of these exhilarating views in any number of Gaia activities: a massage on a day bed; a ceremonial gathering on rocks that evoke Stonehenge spirituality; along a mile-long walking track; or on a stroll to the hilltop yoga room. Or you can gaze at the ocean as you let the call of cows from distant farms punctuate the silence.

The retreat features global touches like the aforementioned Indian dahl and Asian ornaments in its Kukura House, a Samoan-style central meeting point, but Gaia is a decidedly Australian experience in which you can have native wines with dinner after you’ve melted into Gaia’s signature body polish. Set in a steamroom, the treatment alternates between bursts of steam to open the pores, and exfoliations of nourishing wattleseed and local sugar that forms a laquer from the heat of your skin. The mix is combined with omega-3-rich macadamia oil, with properties similar to those of the sebum, creating a “natural affinity” between the oil and skin, says Naomi Quarrell, Gaia’s affable day spa manager. Like Gaia, with flora, sculptures and fountains that dot the property, the treatment is full of many more surprises. For embracing Australian nature, Gaia should be as essential a stop as the Great Barrier Reef.
Visit www.gaiaretreat.com.au.

Before she was diagnosed, Newton-John was already doing yoga and meditating. But the diagnosis was a springboard for more. While still under treatment, she met Deepak Chopra, MD, who gave her some more advanced mantras for her meditation. Finding that the mantras helped, she spent time at Chopra’s health center, where the self-help author introduced the singer to the chakras, the seven energy centers of the body that form a core tenet of India’s Ayurvedic medicine, and gave her some Ayurvedic treatments.

Newton-John’s diagnosis was an education in the value of intuition in personal health. The singer had found lumps in her breast before, but the one she found in 1992 felt different. She didn’t feel well, so she returned to the doctor who had examined her earlier lumps. The results of a mammogram were negative. So were the results of a needle biopsy that followed. But Newton-John still didn’t feel right. A surgical biopsy finally revealed the cancer. “I don’t say this in any way to scare anybody,” she says, “it’s just that my intuition was that something was wrong. And I had to trust that.”

Playing all the Angles

Equipped with Chopra’s lessons in the chakras and the confidence gleaned from trusting her senses, Newton-John pursued more complementary treatments. “I really didn’t want to do chemotherapy but decided to do it so I would cover all my bases,” Newton-John recounts. “But I also did acupuncture. After my chemotherapy I did massage. I did homeopathy to boost my immune system. My husband now was a friend then, and he sent me some herbs. I took them, and I swore they made me feel a lot better.

“So that’s why I believe that this experience was not for nothing,” Newton-John says of her illness. “It was a very important experience in my life because it’s made me realize the importance of all these things when you are healing, and to be aware of what you’re eating and to be conscious that your mind is so important in your healing. Keep a positive attitude. Keep a spiritual base of some kind. All these things led me to where I am now.”

Where Newton-John is now is at the center of a cottage industry, much of it non-profit, of health services and products. Some are adorned with a logo spelling “liv,” with the first letter in the shape of a ribbon, the symbol for the fight against breast cancer.

Newton-John opened the Gaia Retreat & Spa in the Bundjalung country hinterland of Byron Bay seven years ago (see sidebar). She developed a heart-shaped breast self-examination device called the Liv, a kind of membrane with a viscous center to help sensitize the hand and more easily detect a lump (www.liv.com). And she just released Livwise: Easy Recipes for a Healthy, Happy Life (Lyons) that features her simple recipes of fresh ingredients, from egg dishes she serves her husband at their Florida home to plates using exotic Australian seeds featured in treatments and meals at Gaia.

New Cancer Center

Sales from the book are earmarked for the crown at the top of these efforts—her Olivia Newton-John Cancer and Wellness Centre, which opens next month at Austin Hospital in Melbourne, after nine years of work and fundraising. Cancer patients will be able to have oncology massage, take a yoga class or engage in music therapy while their loved ones can sip a cup of tea in a soothing environment.

The cancer center that sat at the property earlier was “overcrowded, old, dark and dingy,” Newton-John recalls. The hospital had been shuttling patients with IVs in their arms between buildings because nothing was under one roof. Hospital officials asked the singer if she could help them raise funds. Newton-John dove in, drumming up support at every turn and even helping choose the new cancer center’s warm gray, yellow and beige hues and other design elements.

“One of my criteria when we were designing the new cancer center was that it would have lots of light and that you would be able to see nature,” she says. “Luckily enough the hospital is in an area where you can see the mountains in the distance, and there are trees outside and lots of light. It will be encouraging to health and make you feel good when you go in there. Having been there I know how important that is.”

Newton-John says her busy touring schedule prevents her from having a regular fitness program built around repetitive activities. But she plays tennis, bikes, skips rope and walks.
“It’s usually whatever I can fit in that day,” she says, “but I’ll do something everyday because I don’t feel good if I don’t.”

Newton-John’s penchant for walking turned into a major fundraiser for her cancer center. Four years ago, the singer and some of her celebrity friends, including Cliff Richard and Leeza Gibbons, walked 142 miles over three weeks along the Great Wall of China to raise $2 million for the center. She likens the difficult walk to her battle to overcome breast cancer.

“You didn’t know what was going to happen the next day, but when you had a good day and you felt like you really achieved something it was really powerful and wonderful,” she says. “For me it was really a metaphor for the cancer journey and the people you meet along the way, and ‘can you make it or can’t you?’ and not giving up. A lot of people got the flu on that walk. In fact we had two buses; one was the sick bus and one was the healthy bus. I got sick, but I didn’t give into it. I kept walking. I thought, ‘I’m the leader so I have to keep everyone going. I can’t quit.’”

When she visits Gaia, Newton-John couples yoga with a hot stone massage or a treatment using the essences of nearly 70 Australian wildflowers and grasses as she gazes at sunbathing water dragons and listens to birdsongs. She discovered the property en route to her nearby home to bring her mother Irene’s ashes to her favorite spot under a 150-year-old Morten Bay fig tree. The daughter of physicist Max Born, Newton-John’s mother was a naturalist and photographer whose ferns, magnolias and other botanical images are on display at Gaia.

In addition to the recipes from Gaia, Newton-John’s cookbook includes dishes from nutritionist friends and family meals, such as the tofu rice she fed her daughter Chloe as a child. The recipes reflect Newton-John’s taste for fresh, simple and organic foods. Steamed vegetables, salads and grilled fish and chicken are favorites. To supplement her diet, she takes CoQ10, vitamin B6, plant-based omega-3 oil, or fish oil if she doesn’t have fish that day, as well as her herbalist husband John Easterling’s green algae and liver cleanse mixtures.

Because personal and environmental health are connected, Newton-John says, she became a spokesperson for the Colette Chuda Environmental Fund, named for her friends’ daughter who died at age five. The group, now named Healthy Child, Healthy World, educates parents to identify non-toxic household cleaners and other products. Conscious of what she buys for her own home, Newton-John says she uses household cleaners with natural ingredients such as tea tree oil.

“We’re all living beings,” Newton-John says, explaining her environmental activism. “We’re all breathing the same air. The air that I breathe, somebody in Tibet might have breathed yesterday. Joan of Arc may have breathed that air hundreds of years ago. We’re all totally connected.”

That sense of linkage is a theme of her song “Pearls on a Chain,” from her 2006 album “Grace and Gratitude.” “Every day my sunrise/will dawn where you are/Every night we sleep/underneath the same stars,” she co-wrote with album producer Amy Sky.

Music’s Healing Power

Newton-John is also an actor, most famously in the hit movie musical “Grease” and most recently in the comedy “A Few Best Men,” in which her character wreaks havoc at her daughter’s wedding. But music has been her biggest nourishment. Most of her early hits were written by others, but she has penned autobiographical songs since her breast cancer diagnosis.

Her album themes coincide with sad and happy episodes in her life. Last year, for instance, she released “Grace and Gratitude Renewed,” an update of her 2006 album, with two new songs, in part to reflect happier circumstances than the original was written in. “Grace and Gratitude” was originally dedicated to her second husband, believed to have disappeared in a boating incident.

“Music is my way of healing myself,” she says. “Even in really difficult times in my life when I thought I wasn’t going to be able to tour or whatever I had kind of a deep knowing that I should do it. I remember being in despair a few times, and a little voice inside would say, ‘Go sing. Go do it.’ I would do it, and it would really help me heal.”

Newton-John’s candor resonates with her fans. At Newton-John’s Sydney Opera House concert, Luke Brighty said he attended his first Newton-John concert in 1999. “I was inspired,” said Brighty, 45, a Sydney photographer, adding that Newton-John’s cancer diagnosis and music helped him cope with a family member’s non-Hodgkins lymphoma.

Newton-John’s concert is a crowd-pleasing showcase of her biggest hits: a “Grease” medley and numbers like “Physical” (a song that provided the soundtrack to the 1980s fitness craze) and “Have You Never Been Mellow?” When that latter song was released in 1975, Newton-John’s vocals were sultry and innocent and exposed vulnerability. A generation later onstage in Sydney, the song and its singer were as decisive and certain as Newton-John’s victory over breast cancer.


Bush-Spiced Fish with Sweet Potato Mash and Fruit Salsa

1 lb orange sweet potato, chopped
2” piece of fresh ginger, finely grated
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 oz dukkah*
6 oz skinless firm white fish fillets
1 chicken or vegetable bouillon cube
4 tsp olive oil
4 lime wedges

Fruit Salsa:

1/2 small red onion, finely chopped
1 kiwifruit, finely chopped
1 small mango, finely chopped
1/4 small pineapple, cored and finely chopped
2 ½ tbsp finely chopped cilantro leaves
1 lime, juice of
2 ½ tbsp olive oil
1 tsp Tabasco sauce, or to taste

*Dukkah is a ground seed-and-spice mixture; Gaia uses pecan, salt, wattleseed (try chicory as a substitute), hazelnut, macadamia nut, sesame seed, lemon myrtle and coriander; prepared dukkah available at some health food and specialty food stores

1. Make the fruit salsa by placing all the ingredients in a bowl and stirring to combine. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until needed.

2. Preheat oven to 400°F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

3. Bring a large saucepan of water to a boil. Add sweet potato and cook 15 minutes, or until tender. Drain well and mash together with the ginger; season with sea salt and black pepper. Set aside and keep warm.

4. Sprinkle the dukkah over the fish. Heat the oil in a large frying pan over medium heat and cook the fish about 5 minutes on each side, or until lightly golden on both sides. Transfer to the prepared baking sheet and bake 8-10 minutes, or until just cooked through.

5. Divide the sweet potato mash among four plates, top with the fish and spoon some of the fruit salsa over each. Serve with lime wedges.

Serves 4. Analysis per serving: 386 calories, 12g protein, 20g fat (3g saturated), 7g fiber, 44g carbohydrate, 689 mg sodium

Recipe reprinted from Livwise: Easy Recipes for a Healthy, Happy Life by Olivia Newton-John (Lyons Press, www.lyonspress.com)


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