Olivia Newton-John has been quietly sitting on my Hero list for some time. She changed a lot of things for a lot of women. Not just for the prim, nerdy high school girls who flocked to “Grease” in theaters in the late ‘70’s — maybe seeing it more times than we cared to count. And for some of us prim nerdy girls, who would never be seen as naughty or edgy or (gasp) cool, there was a promise that we could make things happen just by being ourselves. Her Sandy Olson character went through a bunch of unneccessary changes to impress a boy, when he had already fallen for her prim, nerdy self. There might be a ton of problematic storylines in “Grease!”, but the best story is of Olivia Newton-John, who was propelled into fame by her Sandy role, and that fame gave her a big voice on a topic not many talked about at the time: Breast Cancer. And for that, she is a hero.
Three years before “Grease!” hit the theaters, then-First-Lady Betty Ford astonished Americans by openly discussing her breast cancer diagnosis. She said she did so in part because the nation was reeling from the Watergate coverup, a presidential resignation, secrecy and mistrust of politics, and — ultimately — to save lives. Before then, women did not talk about breast cancer diagnosis, or treatment. Treatment at the time was usually a radical mastectomy including removing underlying chest-wall muscles and the lymph nodes under the arm; it was a disfiguring aggressive surgery. And survival rates were grim, largely due to the silence of women on the topic. Betty Ford had the surgery, and then gave remarks to the American Cancer Society in 1975, saying, “These fears of being ‘less’ of a woman are very real, and it is very important to talk about the emotional side effects honestly…in the open.” The same year Betty Ford was diagnosed, so was Happy Rockefeller, the wife of the Vice President. Happy underwent a double-mastectomy, also being transparent about her illness and treatment. These two women, in the era before pink ribbons, did more than anyone before them to raise awareness and impact women’s health around the topic of breast cancer.
Cancer researchers call the late 1970’s the “Betty Ford Blip”, as more women bravely sought medical advice for troubling lumps or changes in their breast health. Breast self-exams were encouraged, and questions about breast health began to be included in annual exams. Survival rates for breast cancer diagnoses began to be less grim, due to early detection. At the same time, research initiatives gained momentum. Beginning in the 1980’s, there was a lot of excitement about the promising regimen of chemotherapy being given to women after surgery for breast cancer and seeing reduction in recurrences, and reduction in the risk of death from the disease. The trick was matching the chemical poisons of chemotherapy to the kinds of cancers — some fast-growing, some slow-growing, some receptive to hormones, some not. All that research takes funding, and clinical trials. Funding women’s health initiatives was uncharted ground. Drugs in trial (then, and now) do not go immediately to human trials, so the process was agonizingly slow, even though outcomes were promising.
Back to Olivia. In 1992, Newton-John was diagnosed with breast cancer. She spoke openly about having to advocate for herself, feeling something was wrong, and asking not just for mammograms and needle biopsies, but for a surgical biopsy (less common then). She became an advocate for early detection, giving language to questions women should ask, as more diagnostic tools came available. In 2012, she opened the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness & Research Centre in Australia. A large portion of the funding for the center was raised by Olivia auctioning off memorabilia from “Grease!”, including the iconic leather outfit she wore at the end of the film (which fetched $405,000). At the time of her 1992 diagnosis, death rates from breast cancer in Australia (and the rest of the developed world) had been rising, peaking in 1990. In the early ‘90’s the number of deaths began to fall at the same time that number of reported cases increased. Newton-John saw this correlation and ran with it — the key to less deaths is reporting all cases, and treating them early, early, early, with personalized treatment plans.
The Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness & Research Centre was founded to treat patient’s mind and body, to spearhead research, and partner globally with testing to be on the forefront of moving trials to usage in humans. The Centre currently has over 200 trials underway (partnering with U.S. institutions including M.D. Anderson, Rutgers, Mayo Clinic, University of Washington, and more). When Newton-John herself had her first recurrence, she advocated even more fiercely for alternative treatments, including plant-based options. She also was a relentless advocate for allowing women to opt-into clinical trials earlier, so human trials could accrue data faster, and get promising drugs either into reformulating, or to market, more quickly.
Olivia Newton-John died today. And because cancer is such an asshat like that, it was her second recurrence that did it. Somewhere in the legacy she leaves is this message about women trusting their bodies and minds. At the same time breast cancer treatment was moving from radical disfiguring surgical intervention, to a better personal balance of drugs and localized surgery, Newton-John was putting her name to a center that advocated for the individual, for holisitic, whole-person treatment, preserving the essence of each patient, speaking about advocating for oneself, being honest and open about the bodies and needs and concerns of each patient. This was groundbreaking. And life-saving.
From one prim, nerdy high schooler, sitting in the movie theater in 1978 watching “Grease!” — silently hoping Sandy stayed true to herself despite all the pressures, and cheering when it turned out Danny loved her anyway — to twenty-two years later, knowing on a cellular level something was not right, and advocating for my own mammogram then needle biopsy, then surgical biopsy, and being told it was indeed an aggressive cancer, to saying ‘yes’ to being in an early drug trial with no guarantees but looked promising, I stopped being surprised a long time ago Olivia Newton-John was voicing many of the verses to my own song. Every day I’m grateful for the women who had the hard conversations out loud (Betty, Happy) and who’d rather sell the kickass pants they’ll never wear again, in order to give other women hope. No one asks to be on this team of survivors, but I’m so proud of the ones who quarterbacked us this far with fearlessness and created a path forward that is full of science and data and results and a rousing chorus of support.
Team Sandy. Team Olivia. The one we needed, oh yes indeed.