Iconic singer Olivia Newton-John has defeated the disease once before, and there’s no way she’s giving in this time around.
WHAT’S YOUR BREAST CANCER RISK?
In light of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we look at the facts behind the disease that’s the leading cause of cancer in Singaporean women
There’s not much you can do to avoid the top risk factors for breast cancer – being a woman, and growing older – but you can still reduce your chances of developing or dying from breast cancer.
Breast cancer is surrounded by myths and misinformation, so it can be difficult to know for sure that you’re doing everything possible to protect yourself. Here, we answer common questions women have about breast cancer risks.
She’s regarded as one of the most talented people in the music industry, but more than that, Olivia Newton-John is loved for her beautiful soul and her unbreakable spirit.
This year, Olivia once again called on her incredible strength as she vowed for a second time not to let breast cancer beat her. Olivia, who is 68, broke the news of her shocking second cancer diagnosis in May, after being first treated for the disease in 1992, then aged 43. she received chemotherapy, a partial mastectomy and breast reconstruction.
Aussie singer Olivia, who’s long been a source of strength and inspiration to people battling cancer, promised her beloved fans she will “be back later in the year, better than ever”. She released a statement to explain her second cancer diagnosis, determined to explain to her fans why she is postponing her US and Canadian tours. In the statement, Olivia revealed the back pain that had caused her to postpone part of her concert tour last month has turned out to be breast cancer that has spread to her back.
In August, Olivia took to Facebook to let her fans know she was staying positive despite her health issues. “I am really grateful for and touched by the worldwide outpouring of love and concern for me over the last few months. Thank you,” she wrote.
“I am feeling good and enjoying total support from my family, friends and my loyal fans. I am totally confident that my new journey will have a positive success story to inspire others!”
She also asked the public to support her charity event, the Wellness Walk and Research Run for the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness and Research Centre, to help others battling the disease.
“I know we will find a cure for cancer in my lifetime!” the Grease star wrote.
ROAD TO RECOVERY
Despite Olivia’s brave face, her friends say behind closed doors she was devastated by the diagnosis, which she received at her home in California. “She felt she had to release the news, but she doesn’t want to talk to anyone about it,” confides a family friend. “She finds talking about it, or having it talked about, very draining, and she needs every ounce of her energy to fight it. She’s determined to focus on the future. Although she thinks positively – which is the best thing when you’re facing such a challenge – she’s also trying to be realistic and to face this head-on.”
In April, Olivia was complaining that her sciatica was playing up and her back pain was getting worse. “The problem with Livvy is she likes to be busy – she never stops. It was only because the pain was persisting – and because her hubby John made her – that she stopped to get it checked out at all.
“Of course, John is frantic and has made a whole course of Amazon herbs for Olivia to combine with her [Western] cancer treatment,” tells her friend, adding she’s begun taking medication and has started radiation treatment, employing the best doctors in the US to help her fight the insidious disease.
“One of her doctors has told Olivia he’s ‘quietly optimistic’ because her treatments were done so soon after her diagnosis,” reveals one friend, who says this has inspired the brave star to maintain her fighting spirit. “This particular cancer – in her sacrum – is not an easy one to get rid of and can be quite aggressive, but with the right treatment it can be kept under control. “And Olivia feels what she’s doing is working, definitely. She calls it the ‘double punch’ because she combines traditional treatments like radiation with her wellness therapies. Mentally, Olivia is feeling extremely optimistic.”
Olivia knows so much about the whole journey of cancer and getting through it... She’s 100 percent positive.
Her husband, herb company CEO John Easterling, 65, is also devoting all his energy to helping his “soulmate”, telling everyone they are hoping this will be a “miracle healing” as a fatigued Olivia works to regain her strength. “John is such a positive person and he’s by her side, even though he has a lot of work commitments,” says the friend. “He’s dropped everything to be with her 24/7. They are a great team and he’s loud and proud about having faith that everything is going to end well for Olivia.”
Olivia has confided in friends she had a sixth sense that something was really wrong. “She felt ‘overtired and something about her body was not right’ but she kept it hidden,” says her friend. “Now she thinks it’s because she secretly sensed that she wasn’t well.”
The friend says telling her daughter, Chloe Lattanzi, the news was incredibly hard. “Chloe has already been through this experience with her mum as a little girl and it was a big shock for her then, so Olivia knew she had to tread carefully. “But she’s being very mature, wanting to comfort her mum – she wants to help by giving her as much love as possible.”
After the news was announced, Chloe took to Instagram to echo Olivia’s positivity. “I want to thank all of you for your love and support. My mom and best friend is going to be fine!” she wrote.
HER CANCER CRUSADE
Olivia has always refused to give cancer an inch. After beating the disease the first time 25 years ago in 1992, she’s done all she can to support cancer survivors and raise money for research. In 2005 she released Stronger Than Before, an album written for women touched by cancer. Olivia then donated all the profits from her 2006 Grace And Gratitude album to cancer charities, and has also been championing the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness & Research Centre at Melbourne’s Austin Hospital.
“She’s definitely feeling exhausted, but that’s natural at this stage of her recovery. And while she’s constantly tired, Olivia’s already talking about her plans for the next year or two and even beyond that,” her friend says.
Olivia’s efforts to reach out to other cancer patients, even through her own struggles, are admirable. “Olivia knows so much about the whole journey of cancer and getting through it, and not just from her own experience,” her friend explains. “She’s gained so much knowledge through her own cancer centre in Melbourne and she’s always been so involved, meeting patients and talking to the amazing doctors at the centre, that she has an incredible understanding of this disease.
“She’s witnessed firsthand what works and what doesn’t and how people cope, and she has always felt and believed that a positive attitude is key to getting well again. Every time we speak, she’s 100 percent positive.”
I breastfed my children: Will this protect me from breast cancer?
Breastfeeding can lower the risk of breast cancer, especially if you breastfeed for more than one year, says Dr Chong, but it does not mean there is zero risk.
“It’s true that having your first baby at a later age, and never breastfeeding, may increase your risk of breast cancer,” says Dr Zorbas.
Are mammograms very painful?
Dr Chong compares the discomfort from a mammogram to squeezing into a tight pair of shoes. “Deep breathing, and scheduling the mammogram the week after menses, can be helpful in minimising the discomfort,” says Dr Chong.
If you do not have a family history of breast cancer, you should consider yearly mammograms if you are between 40 to 50. Women between 20 to 39 should also do a monthly breast self-examination. Look up for persistent lumps, a retracted nipple, discharge, dimpled or puckered skin, or a change in the size or shape of one breast.
Besides finding solace in her fan’s encouraging messages, Olivia’s enjoyed support from her daughter, Chloe Lattanzi.
Even throughout her cancer treatment, Olivia continues to find joy in activities like horse riding.
Olivia continues reaching out to fellow cancer patients, even after her second breast cancer diagnosis.
I’M GRATEFUL TO BE ALIVE
Breast cancer survivor Branda Lai doesn’t take her health for granted anymore.
Branda Lai went on an emotional roller coaster when she was diagnosed with stage 1 breast cancer in January 2015. “It was utterly shocking, I went from crying hysterically for two hours, to self-blaming, anxiety and finally, acceptance,” the 30-year-old consultant shares.
She underwent four cycles of painful chemotherapy, a lumpectomy and 33 sessions of radiation therapy. She also suffered from body aches, fever, nausea, fatigue and boils. “I lost all my hair (including body hair, lashes and brows) and due to the steroids in the chemo drugs, I gained weight and looked bloated.”
The silver lining to her breast cancer ordeal was that Branda’s boyfriend proposed after her cancer diagnosis. “He wanted to show that he loved me unconditionally, and would look after me for the rest of my life.”
Before she was diagnosed, Branda confesses she took her health for granted, but now her cancer diagnosis has reminded her to be grateful to be alive. She now rows with the Breast Cancer Foundation’s dragon boat team, Paddlers in the Pink, on a weekly basis. She also warns women not to take their health for granted as breast cancer can happen to any woman, at any age. “Because the disease doesn’t always have symptoms, early detection through regular self-checks and health screenings is important.”
Do I really need a mammogram if I lead a healthy lifestyle?
Obesity, a high-fat diet, alcohol consumption and a sedentary lifestyle are all risk factors for breast cancer. While a healthy lifestyle reduces your risks, the chance of mutations leading to breast cancer increases with age.
“No food or diet can prevent breast cancer, but healthy foods with more fruits and vegetables can help to boost the immune system,” says Dr Chong. “Maintain a healthy weight, do regular exercises with some sunshine for vitamin D, control your stress, reduce alcohol consumption and avoid smoking.” Regardless of your health, you should conduct breast self-exams and mammograms, based on your age, to allow early detection of breast cancer should it strike.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING: LISA TWANG
PHOTOS: INSTAGRAM, TPG NEWS