Musician, actor and activist Dame Olivia Newton-John died yesterday, at her ranch in Santa Barbara, California, surrounded by family and friends. One of my first thoughts on reading the news was that this sense of being together with loved ones, in a beautiful place with expansive views, seems a peaceful and connected way to pass those final moments.
Newton-John, best known for her upbeat pop tunes and her iconic turn as nice girl turned leather-wearing style queen Sandy Olsson in Grease, was diagnosed with breast cancer back in 1992. She lived alongside the diagnosis for 30 years, and advocated for health and children’s causes throughout the last three decades.
In a Guardian interview in 2020, at her southern California ranch, Newton-John said: “I don’t think of myself as sick with cancer. I choose not to see it as a fight either because I don’t like war.
“I don’t like fighting wherever it is – whether it’s outside or an actual war inside my body. I choose not to see it that way. I want to get my body healthy and back in balance.”
Newton-John’s decision to shun the traditional narrative of “battling” cancer is inspirational. Too often, we see discourse about people “winning” or “losing” a “fight” with the disease, something that can be completely outside of their control. It puts a value judgement on health (and ill health) and makes recovering from cancer – or dying from it – about strength. If cancer ends someone’s life, it’s not because they are “weak” or “didn’t fight hard enough”.
My grandma was diagnosed with breast cancer about 15 years ago. Happily, she still lights up our lives – and could hardly be torn away from watching the women’s Euros this summer – but if breast cancer meant she was no longer around, I wouldn’t think that it was because she’d “lost” or hadn’t shown enough strength or determination to “beat” the disease.
In 2020, 11.7 per cent of all cancers diagnosed were female breast cancer, making it the most common cancer worldwide. The same year saw more than 2.2 million women diagnosed with breast cancer and 685,000 deaths globally. Due to family history, perhaps it will be a reality for me later on in life, too, and I hope I can approach the diagnosis with the same compassion and wisdom as Newton-John.
Her mention of “balance” in her health and body also feels worth exploring, particularly as balance is something that is often sorely lacking in our hectic daily lives, driven by the grinding gears of capitalism and the financial inequalities that it inevitably causes, that leave so many of us on an eternal treadmill, constantly seeking to keep our heads above water.
Of course, Newton-John could perhaps better afford this balance, with a net worth of $60m (£49.6m), and treating our bodies as something other than machines in service of labour is merely a luxurious dream for billions of people on this planet. Nevertheless, balance within the body is worth striving for – something I’ve had to learn the hard way after years of debilitating endometriosis symptoms. (Maybe don’t live on coffee and cigarettes, shun all forms of exercise and ignore every signal from your body until the pain is so intense that it feels like you’re going blind!)
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Olivia Newton-John is right about war and fighting – conflict and aggression damages everything it touches. Ill-health is not a battle, and seeing it only so creates useless categories of winners and losers. Working with your body, in all its stages, is preferable to working against it.
Newton-John’s legacy will live on through her advocacy work, her music and the enduring popularity of Grease – although don’t get me started on the problematic language in “Summer Nights” or the way Sandy changes her whole persona and style for a man. But let’s also remember her approach to cancer – and her conscious choice not to see her diagnosis as a “war” within her body.
There’s enough conflict in this world, and all the suffering and destruction that comes with it, without putting this narrative on our bodies too.