How Olivia Newton John isn’t letting cancer affect her mental health

The hit-maker talks to Paul Ewart about staying positive, medicinal cannabis, cutting out sugar and reveals her most important legacy.
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She’s Australia’s original sweetheart. A legend of the stage and screen with four Grammy awards to her name, alongside more than 100 million albums in record sales, making her one of the world’s best-selling recording artists of all time.

But aside from a career that has seen her entertain for five decades, the adored performer has also become an unlikely source of inspiration for millions of cancer sufferers around the world after publicly battling breast cancer following a diagnosis more than 25 years ago.

“Being open to learning and growing through tough times is the way to evolve.” (Image: Getty Images)

After years in remission, the pop icon revealed last year that not only has the cancer returned to her body, but that she was secretly treated for a second bout of the illness five years ago. Yet despite the blow, the singer is remaining upbeat in the face of adversity and is determined to beat it a third time.

“I have always been the kind of person to look at the cup as half full,” the 70-year-old superstar tells Good Health & Wellbeing.

“Positive thinking is so important to living a healthy and happy life, no matter what the challenge. I think just being open to learning and growing through tough times is the way to evolve and become stronger – for yourself and for others.”

Public scrutiny

First diagnosed with breast cancer in 1992 at the age of 43, Olivia underwent nine months of debilitating chemo, and surgeries including a partial mastectomy and breast reconstruction. Later admitting that it was especially tough dealing with the illness in the public eye, the star made the decision to keep a second diagnosis – a tumour in her shoulder – to herself.

The tumour got smaller, but unbeknownst to the star the cancer continued to spread and last year doctors discovered that it had returned and metastasized to the base of her spine, later spreading to her back.

Now the courageous star is doing everything she can to stay well. Already a long-time healthy eater, the Xanadu actress has upped the ante since receiving the news, increasing her intake of veges and ditching sugar.

WATCH: Olivia Newton John on her second fight with cancer. Post continues…

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“I’ve always loved a variety of fruit and vegetables – I love roasting veges or eating them raw – and now I’m eating even more of them,” she says.

“I’ve also eliminated most sugar from my diet as cancer feeds on sugar and, in general, I eat as much organically grown food as possible.

“My mum taught me the importance of being aware of what you put in your body. When I was a young girl I used to be jealous of my friends who had cookies and cakes in their lunch boxes. I wasn’t happy then, but today I’m so grateful for it.

“I’ve also always loved to ‘get physical’ – sorry, I couldn’t help the pun,” she giggles.

“My favourite ways to exercise include swimming and going for long hikes with my husband and my dog. I just love being in nature and taking in the beautiful countryside. I also like to play tennis when I can, but I haven’t been able to play in a while – I can’t wait until I’m back on the court with friends!”

Olivia’s emphasis on eating organic and getting her exercise in the great outdoors is also the cornerstone of how the hit-maker deals with cancer. While she’s just undergone photon radiation therapy, the songstress is also a huge advocate for natural remedies in tandem with more traditional cancer treatment.

“When I was first diagnosed with breast cancer, I did everything I could to combine both eastern and western therapies,” she explains.

“But I did have to do a lot of research on adjunctive therapies, including meditation, reiki, massage, yoga, homeopathy and herbs, on my own.

Olivia’s husband of 10 years, John Easterling, runs his own herbal company and grows cannabis for the star on their ranch in California where it is legal. (Image: Getty Images)

Herbal relief

“For my current cancer journey I have combined photon radiation therapy with herbal infusions and medicinal cannabis to help with my pain and sleeping.”

Handily Olivia’s husband of 10 years, John Easterling, runs his own herbal company and grows cannabis for the star on their ranch in Santa Barbara, California (in California it’s legal to grow plants for your own medicinal purposes).

“How lucky am I to have a plant medicine man as my husband?” she says, smiling.

“He has been creating special tinctures and strains of cannabis to help with my symptoms. Medicinal cannabis is something that should be available to everyone who is going through a chronic illness or pain. I hope that we can help change the stigma around this amazing, healing plant. I hope to help bring cannabis to every patient who can benefit from it.”

It’s also on their ranch where the Grease star has been doing the majority of her convalescing. Amongst its paddocks and population of animals, she’s ensured that her home is a “healing place”, and this, alongside a variety simple rituals, has been integral in the healing process.

“Being with my husband, animals and in nature really centres my spirit,” she says. “I find that doing everyday chores around the house is a great way of focusing my mind. I love doing laundry, washing the dishes, cooking meals for my husband and feeding my dog, cat, miniature horses and chickens. There is nothing better than waking up in the morning and heading to the chicken coop to fetch some eggs, so I can make a healthy breakfast. It’s just the best!

“I truly believe that you should find time every day to do something simple you love to do, whether it’s painting, knitting, reading, going for a walk, or simply having your favourite cup of tea out of your favourite mug. It gives you something to focus on beyond your immediate concerns.”

“Being with my husband, animals and in nature really centres my spirit.” (Image: Instagram @therealonj)

Olivia’s efforts to tackle cancer extend well beyond her own personal journey as a sufferer. She is also a committed campaigner, specifically via her eponymous cancer and wellness research institute in Heidelberg, Victoria.

“When I was approached about lending my name to a new comprehensive cancer centre I knew it would be a huge undertaking,” she reflects.

“I was unsure, so I asked my mother her thoughts. She said to me – in her German accent: ‘Darling, if this will help people, then you should do it.’ And that was it!”

Olivia made it a condition of her involvement that there was an allowance for complementary treatments for patients on site.

“Having had the luxury of access to these therapies during my own cancer journey it was important for me that everyone at the hospital could have access to the wellness programs too. The treatments helped me greatly as I went through chemotherapy, so I’m very proud that we have these available to patients. We offer music and art therapies, acupuncture, meditation, oncological massage, and so many other wonderful programs to help heal the whole person – body, mind and spirit.”

Committed campaigner Olivia started the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness & Research Centre to help others. (Image: Instagram @onjcancercentre)

Lasting legacy

In spite of her relapse, Olivia’s determination to inspire and help others is as strong as it has ever been. With a goal to see more centres like hers opening elsewhere in the world, she regards her work to improve treatment for the disease as her greatest achievement.

“Now it’s so important for me that most everything I do has some fundraising element to it so I can raise funds for the centre,” she says passionately.

“I have had such a blessed life that I’m grateful to be able to give back where I can. No matter what successes I have had in my career, the centre will always be my most important legacy.”

Considering legacies, our talk turns to Olivia’s milestone birthday in September.

“I am so grateful to make 70!” she enthuses.

“For me, every day is a gift – I celebrate life and age really is just a number. As I get older, I don’t focus on the cons, rather the pros – you no longer sweat the small stuff and, for me, I find that I enjoy things that might have scared me when I was younger. When I was a lot younger I would worry about so many things…now I just enjoy all the wonderful opportunities that come my way.”

WATCH: Olivia Newtown John: The evolution of an icon. Post continues…

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Her “blessed life” is something the star talks about in her new memoir, Don’t Stop Believin’. And it seems fitting that the release of the book followed the recent 40th anniversary of Grease hitting cinema screens. As she reveals in her autobiography, Olivia almost didn’t take life-changing role of Sandy, saying that at the time she thought it was “someone else’s role”.

But while acknowledging the iconic musical was a turning point, the singer doesn’t spend time thinking of what might have been.

“I never really look back,” she says, matter-of-factly. “I believe everything happens for a reason. But, if I hadn’t followed the path that I did in showbusiness, I probably would have been a mounted police officer as I love horses, or perhaps a veterinarian. Though I was never very good with math and science so that probably wouldn’t have worked out that well!”

Indeed, the title of her memoir is also the legend’s personal mantra – especially in times of trouble.

Don’t Stop Believin’ is a song that was a hit for me back in the 70s,” she explains. “The lyrics always resonated with me,” she says, breaking into song. “‘On those days when, nobody wants to know you, and all your smiles keep falling on stony ground – don’t stop, believing, don’t stop believing, don’t stop believing, and you’ll get by.’ Those words remain so true for me.

No matter what life presents you with, you just need to believe and focus on the positive.”

Olivia almost didn’t take her iconic role of Sandy in Grease. (Image: Getty Images)

Power of positivity

Of course there are times when she feels weighed down by the health issues she’s had to face.

“I would be lying if I said that I never go there – it’s human,” Olivia says candidly. “But, for the most part, I remain upbeat and positive. I truly believe it helps win over cancer or any challenge you’re going through. Laughter also helps and I love laughing… often at myself!

“When I was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 1992, a dear Buddhist friend said to me: ‘Congratulations, now you will grow.’ At the time, I didn’t know what he meant, but I now realise that if I didn’t go through my own cancer journey I might not have gone on to help create awareness about cancer, nor would I have gone on to help create my Wellness & Research Centre.”

Meanwhile, the experience has only made the talented songstress more determined to enjoy every second of her life, for as long as is possible.

“Everyone has joys and challenges in life,” she says sagely. “No one escapes. So my advice is to say ‘yes’, to say yes to life, yes to love, yes to loving and yes to living. Life is a gift. Despite everything, I’m certainly the happiest I have ever been. I have a wonderful life, husband, family and friends – what more could anyone ask for?”

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