Getting Answers: Olivia Newton-John’s battle with breast cancer

The death of singer and actress Olivia Newton-John this week has drawn attention to her 30-year battle with breast cancer.
Updated: Aug. 9, 2022 at 5:00 PM EDT
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SPRINGFIELD, MA (WGGB/WSHM) - The death of singer and actress Olivia Newton-John this week has drawn attention to her 30-year battle with breast cancer.

“A part of her legacy will be the many, many people that she helped come out and face their disease with bravery and grace,” said Kathy Tobin, director of annual giving and events for the Baystate Health Foundation.

Newton-John, a four-time Grammy winner, passed away this week at age 73 following a 30-year battle with breast cancer. The singer and actress rose to fame in 1978 after starring opposite John Travolta in the smash hit movie musical “Grease.”

After her diagnosis, Newton-John became a huge advocate for cancer screening and became a symbol of hope for cancer patients around the globe and developed her own cancer wellness and research center in Australia. Tobin told us how her advocacy has impacted cancer research.

“Thirty years ago, we didn’t talk about breast cancer in the open way that we are now talking about it, so she was really a groundbreaker in that way and she embraced this disease so bravely and so publicly that it really helped many, many other women and men who will struggle with breast cancer confront their disease and what treatment options they might have,” Tobin explained.

Newton-John’s death has sparked questions about just how common it is to battle a disease like breast cancer for a time span of three decades.

Western Mass News spoke with Dr. Amy Commander, director of breast oncology at the Mass. General Cancer Center at Newton-Wellesley Hospital. She told us her understanding is the singer was originally diagnosed in 1992 and had a recurrence of cancer years later in 2013, with a third round in 2017, this time with cancer at the base of her spine. Commander told us scientists are still trying to understand exactly why breast cancer and other types of cancer can reoccur many years later in other parts of the body.

“Breast cancers, in particular specifically hormonally sensitive cancers, may often reoccur many years later in the bone, so her presentation is something certainly I’ve seen in my clinic as well,” Commander added.

Commander explained this is why it’s important for patients with a history of breast cancer to follow up with their oncology team and primary care doctors. She went on to say that although it’s always hard when a beloved star dies at such a young age, it’s important to learn from their legacy.

“Advocate for women’s health take charge of your health support those who are going through a difficult diagnosis,” Commander noted.

In western Massachusetts, the Rays of Hope Walk and Run for a Cure started almost 30 years ago. The hope then was that, by now, we would have a cure for breast cancer. Although the effort is ongoing, Tobin told us they have made significant progress along the way.

“What we have been able to do is offer men and women improved treatments and different therapies and options and certainly to live longer with breast cancer and Olivia Newton-John is certainly a testament to that 30 years later to be a survivor,” Tobin noted.