OLIVIA NEWTON JOHN: Life, Love, and Healing from Cancer
Chosen by People Magazine as one of the 50 most beautiful people in the world, OLIVIA NEWTON JOHN (nicknamed Olivia Neutron-Bomb), is still as vibrant and lovely as she was when she starred with John Travolta in Grease in 1978. The film catapulted her to stardom and led to the most successful movie musical soundtrack in history, with songs including “Hopelessly Devoted to You.” For its 20th anniversary, the film was re-released to even more acclaim.
In a career spanning over three decades, OLIVIA NEWTON JOHN was bestowed an Order Of The British Empire and Officer of the Order of Australia by the Queen, was invited by the Vatican on behalf of the Pope to perform, carried the Olympic Torch at the Sydney 2000 Olympics, and had 25 Top 40 singles.
Yet NEWTON JOHN has also aided many humanitarian and environmental causes, and after being diagnosed with breast cancer in 1992, has helped women globally by speaking openly about her experience and launching a prevention programme. She lives in Los Angeles and Australia.
CAROL: My favourite quote from you is: “There’s a rumor going around that I’m Miss Goody-Two-Shoes from Australia. Well, that’s a laugh. I’m really Miss Goody-Two-Shoes from England!” Growing up in England, was health a priority with your family?
OLIVIA NEWTON JOHN: Though my mother was German (the daughter of Nobel Prize winning physicist Max Born), she was adamant about healthy eating. She would only steam and grill food; no frying. She only let us eat pumpernickel bread, used the water that she cooked vegetables with to make gravy, and cooked potatoes with skins on, saying that the nutrients were there. She lived until she was 89, and was very healthy apart from her bad back, but that was caused when she lost a bone during the war. She instilled good habits in me and though I rebelled when I was young (I wanted to eat the white bread that other kids ate), I came around, and am now very health-conscious.
CAROL: Why did you openly talk about your cancer?
OLIVIA NEWTON JOHN: I wasn’t going to speak about it, but when I heard that the press was going to distribute a news story that I was “going to die of breast cancer,” my publicist and I made the decision to talk about it rather than let the scary, untrue article appear.
CAROL: How did the press hear about it?
OLIVIA NEWTON JOHN: They have spies at x-ray centres and hospitals in LA just waiting to spot someone, and they can get hold of that type of information. It’s very disturbing, isn’t it? So I decided to confront it, making a clean breast of it, so to speak. It was difficult at the time because I was very private. But looking back, I’m grateful that I was open. It helped me to be able to discuss it. I also feel fortunate to help others and introduce the OLIVIA NEWTON JOHN Breast Kit (a self-exam guide).
CAROL: Do you mean that talking about it helped you through it?
OLIVIA NEWTON JOHN: Yes. It helped me to thrive in it rather than wallow, and feel sorry for myself. When I got it in 1992 cancer was called “the big C” and had such stigma attached that women wouldn’t talk about it even to close friends. The more education people have the more they understand it, and it makes it less scary. Now we talk about breasts quite openly in magazines — after all, half the species have them! They’re beautiful and they need to be taken care of. I find that women my age are hesitant to examine their breasts because they’re afraid to find something. I understand the thinking but it’s better to find something early.
CAROL: How did it change you?
OLIVIA NEWTON JOHN: My life is amazing. And the experience of having to go through cancer opened up a whole world for me that I wouldn’t have had. It made me more appreciative of my life and everything in it, though it took years to get to the point where I realized that. Every year that I’m here, I’m grateful. I may sometimes be afraid to get old, but the alternative isn’t very good! We should be happy to get older and be healthy as we age.
CAROL: You said it helped you to gain self-awareness. How?
OLIVIA NEWTON JOHN: I’ve been through other experiences, tests, in my life that I found even more difficult — emotional challenges can be harder than physical ones, though they’re all tied together. But going through pain we get stronger and gain wisdom. Very often we surprise ourselves with our strength. Women say to me, “I don’t know how you made it through.” But you could, too. It’s when we’re faced with these things that we find out who we really are. We all have strength if we dig down to look for it. I’ve got a hat that says, “The only way through difficulty is to go through it.” You can’t try to avoid it by going around it, above it or below it.
CAROL: Do you think you’ve had more difficulty than most? (Though we didn’t discuss it, OLIVIA NEWTON JOHN has also dealt with divorce, the tragic deaths of friends Karen Carpenter, John Denver, her daughter Chloe’s best friend, and in 2005, the mysterious disappearance of her long-time boyfriend who has still not been found after going on a fishing trip.)
OLIVIA NEWTON JOHN: I don’t think so, but I have had extreme ones. Perhaps since I’ve been so fortunate in many areas of life it all has to balance!
CAROL: Do you think the circumstances at the time you were diagnosed had anything to do with the illness?
OLIVIA NEWTON JOHN: I think stress played a major role. At the time a girlfriend took me to see a therapist and they said that I needed to start “weaning people off of me.” That was an interesting metaphor. A doctor with experience in Eastern philosophy asked if I was having emotional troubles with men, which was also interesting. (She divorced three years after the diagnosis.) I believe there are a lot of links between mind and body and that the body holds emotion. Stress affects the immune system, and since it’s always fighting cancer cells in all of us, when we’re compromised by an emotional event it affects our defenses.
CAROL: Your “Grace and Gratitude” CD is promoted to help restore spiritual balance and healing.
OLIVIA NEWTON JOHN: It’s based on the seven chakras and each song relates to a different part of our body and a different feeling, showing how we’re connected emotionally to our organs, which I find fascinating. I did the album as a healing tool for myself and in doing so I hope it helps others. As the title reflects, the most important thing is in having gratitude at all times about what you’ve got. It makes you feel good, releasing healthy chemicals in your body. There is something to be grateful for each day, whether you believe in God, Buddha, Allah, or not.
CAROL: How did you learn about this?
OLIVIA NEWTON JOHN: Through reading and spiritual experiences. It’s “a knowing” that feels true for me. If you’re anxious, you get a stomach ache; if you feel tense you get a headache — basic things can be related to mind body connection. But it can be expanded: if you have a sore throat, what haven’t you told somebody that you need to? Someone gave me a book by Louise Hay when I was going through cancer, and it rang a bell. I think that’s how everyone discovers their own belief system. If you don’t believe it then it’s not true for you. I believe that we’re made of energy and blocks in energy channels within the body can relate to illness. I think that as medicine advances, we will see this proven. But since it’s on a subconscious level, women shouldn’t blame themselves, feeling that it’s their fault that they’re ill. It’s simply awareness.
CAROL: Does singing help you?
OLIVIA NEWTON JOHN: Singing is spiritual for me. There was a time in my life when I stopped singing. Then I started to have serious trouble with my throat — there was a tumour in it. I was going to different healers and suddenly realized that I hadn’t been singing, and had a vision that it was what I needed to do. I started singing again and it disappeared. That was more proof to me of the manifestation of something in me that needed to be expressed but I wasn’t allowing.
CAROL: What type of exercise works well for you?
OLIVIA NEWTON JOHN: I walk my dog two or three times a day. I take a hike or play tennis three times a week. I have a treadmill at home and I do my own version of pilates. I’m not a fanatic but I know what my body needs. My body is one that needs to move, to get out in nature, because that’s what makes me feel good.
CAROL: And your diet?
OLIVIA NEWTON JOHN: I have a no-wheat, no-dairy diet. But I’ve been taking digestive enzymes with meals made by Amazon Herb Co. When I take them I can eat anything I like! Since our stomachs lose their digestive juices as we get older we start to have problems like allergies. I’ve always had problems with wheat and dairy, though. I was eating a lot of soy as an alternative but one day I knew I needed to change. My body tells me.
CAROL: Do you use complementary treatments?
OLIVIA NEWTON JOHN: My doctor in Los Angeles gives homeopathic, traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture treatments, muscle testing and conventional medicine. If I want to check something he covers all the basics. But I’m very healthy! I also take a lot of (Amazon brand) herbs.
CAROL: Are you very involved with the OLIVIA NEWTON JOHN CANCER CENTER at the Austin Campus in Melbourne?
OLIVIA NEWTON JOHN NEWTON JOHN: Yes. We haven’t raised all of the funds for it yet. When they asked me to lend my name to it, I stipulated that I would only if they added a wellness centre. Now the wellness centre has become a huge part of the hospital. They have incorporated some complementary therapies but in the new centre people will be able to recuperate: have tea, talk to others in treatment, have a foot massage and aromatherapy to help them heal. I had chemotherapy but I also did homeopathy, acupuncture and meditation, and now these things will be offered in addition to conventional treatments.
CAROL: You even have your own retreat.
OLIVIA NEWTON JOHN: I started Gaia Retreat and Spa with three friends, a beautiful resort in the hinterlands of ByronBay, close to Brisbane. It’s the highest point in the area, has no TVs, has incredible food, and features several healers. It’s near my home so I go when I’m there.
CAROL: Why do you think Grease was such a hit?
OLIVIA NEWTON JOHN: It went way beyond our expectations. I would never have believed that a new generation of kids would be discovering it now. We relate to the characters, who are similar to people we all knew at school, and it was a larger-than-life musical with good music.
CAROL: What was a favourite moment in Xanadu (though you fractured your coccyx while filming a dance sequence)?
OLIVIA NEWTON JOHN: Can you imagine dancing with Gene Kelly when I’d never tapped in my life? Though I worked on it for three months beforehand, the first day of filming I was very intimidated. But he was such a lovely man; I’m lucky that the amazing experience was captured forever on film to remember it.
Originally written by Carol Crenna as a feature in VISTA Magazine