Olivia Newton-John
Olivia Newton-John leaves behind an incredible cancer-research legacy. Cole Bennetts/Getty Images
  • Actress and singer Olivia Newton-John passed away Monday at the age of 73.
  • The singer was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1992 and became an outspoken advocate.
  • Newton-John worked for over 30 years to raise awareness and funds for breast cancer research.
  • She also helped raise the funds needed to build the Olivia Newton-John Cancer and Wellness Centre in Melbourne, Australia, which continues to sponsor global research into plant medicine and cancer.
  • The work of advocates like Newton-John has helped further advancements in breast cancer detection and treatment.

Music icon and “Grease” star Olivia Newton-John passed away on Monday at the age of 73, according to an announcement made by her husband, John Easterling, on Facebook.

Though Newton-John may be best remembered for her singing and acting talents, she was also a fierce advocate for breast cancer, openly sharing her own battle with the disease while working to raise awareness and funds to further education and treatments.

Newton-John first found a lump in her breast in 1992. After being diagnosed with breast cancer, she was treated and went into remission.

In 2013, her breast cancer returned in her shoulder, followed by her back in 2017.

In September 2018, she revealed she was receiving treatment for cancer at the base of her spine.

“Olivia has been a symbol of triumphs and hope for over 30 years sharing her journey with breast cancer,” Easterling wrote in his announcement.

Despite her challenges, Newton-John thrived while living with breast cancer for three decades.

In addition to inspiring others with the story of her breast cancer journey, Newton-John helped raise funds in 2008 to build the Olivia Newton-John Cancer and Wellness Centre in Melbourne, Australia, which continues to sponsor global research into plant medicine and cancer.

Breast cancer detection and treatment have evolved greatly over 30 years

Since Newton-John’s first diagnosis in the 1990s, breast cancer detection and treatment methods have seen many advancements.

Dr. Peter Schmid, medical director at Perci Health, an online platform that gives people access to multidisciplinary cancer specialists, says breast cancer survival rates have more than doubled in the past 40 years. 

He notes that 76% of people with breast cancer now live 10 or more years, according to research by Cancer Research UK.

“This is because cancer detection has improved, and treatment has become more targeted, resulting in more people being able to have the relevant treatment,” he explains.

“For metastatic breast cancer, where the cancer has spread to other parts of the body, the 10-year survival rates are lower depending on how advanced your cancer is,” he adds. “However, the good news is that new treatments are becoming available even for those with very advanced disease.”

Schmid says some of the major advancements in breast cancer detection and treatment over the past 20 years, include improved screening programs, novel therapies such as immunotherapy, and genetic profiling.

Where screening is concerned, Schmid says 3D mammography allows for more precise images, meaning doctors can detect cancer at earlier stages.

Meanwhile, “Immunotherapy – using the body’s immune system to recognize and kill cancer cells – has shown great results for triple-negative breast cancer,” he explains.

How you can lower your breast cancer risk

While treatments for breast cancer have advanced greatly over the past 30 years, health experts say prevention is still the best medicine.

“There’s no single cause of breast cancer. It results from a combination of the way we live our lives, our genes, and our environment,” clarifies Lisa Jacques, lead cancer nurse at Perci Health.  

While there are no definitive ways to prevent breast cancer, she says there are some lifestyle changes you can implement to help lower your risk.

Research has found that alcohol consumption can increase the risk of breast cancer by up to 7 to 16%.

Jacques stresses that there is no safe amount of alcohol when it comes to reducing your breast cancer risk but she advises limiting your alcohol intake to a maximum of 14 units per week. This is roughly equivalent to six pints of beer or one and a half bottles of wine per week.

Quitting smoking is also significantly beneficial.

“There’s growing evidence that smoking can increase the risk of breast cancer and the risk is higher if you have a significant family history of breast cancer,” Jacques points out.

However, quitting smoking can be challenging for many. That’s why Jacques advises consulting with a medical practitioner who may be able to point you in the direction of effective smoking cessation programs.

Maintaining a healthy weight is also key when it comes to lowering your breast cancer risk.

“Try to stay active where possible,” Jacques advises. “You don’t need to do high intensity workouts or pay for a gym membership. A short daily walk outside, which is low impact and free, can make all the difference.”

Like many cancers, early detection can improve survival rates for cancer, and that’s why checking your breasts on a regular basis is paramount.

Jacques advises checking for lumps once a month, ideally on the same day each month, by lifting your arms up and rubbing your hand around the breast in a circular motion.

It’s key to know your body and know what is new or unusual. “For example, you might notice a change of size, feel of the skin, notice a rash, lumps, or nipple changes,” says Jacques.

“You might also notice some pain. However, pain isn’t always present so you shouldn’t rely on this on its own,” she adds.

If you do notice any changes, it’s imperative that you speak with your medical practitioner or oncology team.

Nevertheless, Jacques stresses the treatments available and the overall outlook for breast cancer patients today have improved by leaps and bounds, in part due to the advocacy efforts of people like Newton-John.

“Many people now live long and happy lives after a cancer diagnosis,” Jacques says.

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