Great walk to fight cancer


Much-loved celebrity Olivia Newton-John is about to embark on a unique journey, which she hopes will raise millions of dollars to assist in the fight against cancer. Olivia tells Jo Bailey about the new cancer centre and research facility she is fundraising for, and has some special advice for people on their own cancer journey.

We’ve grown up with her, sung along with her hit songs, and there’s a good chance we’ve even had a go at being her  – Summer Nights duet anyone? Olivia Newton-John is easily one of the world’s most loved celebrities and I’m happy to report that after chatting to her on the phone, that she is just as engaging, friendly and down-to-earth as you might imagine.

When pink spoke with Olivia she had spent the day in a Louisiana studio recording songs for the television show ‘Sordid Lives : The Series” in which she is reprising her role as notorious ex-con, guitar playing singer, Bitsy Mae Harling. “I did the movie a number of years ago, and I’m playing the same character – a groovy honky tonk singer. I get to do all these crazy country songs – it’s great fun.”

As well as a busy touring, shooting and recording schedule, Olivia has spent the last few months preparing for the walk of her life. In April she will lead a team of friends from the show business, sporting and corporate worlds, as well as a number of everyday cancer survivors on The Great Walk to Beijing 2008 as a lead up to the Beijing Olympics. Their goal is to raise millions of dollars to contribute to vital research in the fight against all types of cancer, and to build the world class Olivia Newton John-Cancer Centre in Melbourne. Some of the key people she has already enlisted for the event include Sharon Osborne, Cliff Richard and Jimmy Barnes. “I’m waiting for other key people to confirm but Jimmy has committed to walking the whole way with me while others will come and join us for part of the walk. With so much incredible history along the route I’m also looking forwarding to learning more about China and its people. It‘s going to be great,” says Olivia.

The team will face some extremely challenging sections of the wall on their three week journey, which will pass through deserts and mountains and at times, reach gradients of 40 degrees. Olivia says the harsh physical conditions are a good reflection of what cancer patients face on their journey to recovery. Funds will be raised through sponsorship of each of the participants on the 228 km walk, with the aim to raise one dollar for every step taken. Ten corporate sponsorships will also raise significant funds for the event.

It was several years ago that she was first asked if she would be willing to do the walk. “I can’t claim the idea although I wish I could. Years ago I said ‘yeah, I’ll do it’, and I can’t believe that it’s now just a couple of months away.” Olivia’s training suffered a small setback when her dog ran into her knee and injured it on Christmas evening, but since January she has been back into a steady regime of hiking, treadmill and tennis.

Olivia is recording a duet with fellow cancer survivor, Aussie songstress Delta Goodrem, which will become the theme song for the event. “I am really thrilled about performing the song with Delta, and will also be recording a song with a wonderful singer from China and hopefully some other guest artists.”

It was around five years ago that the Austin Hospital in Melbourne asked Olivia to lend her name to a new cancer centre. “The Austin Hospital is one of the oldest and most respected cancer hospitals in Australia, but it’s facilities had become very run down. When they approached me I said I would love to help, but on the condition that a Wellness Centre became part of the development. I’m a great believer that a big part of healing is to support mental and spiritual as well as physical health.” Olivia says the Wellness Centre will be a calm place, where cancer patients from all over Australia and overseas can meditate, have a massage or simply find some peace. Its focus will be on providing core complementary treatments, information and existing support programmes with the aim of encouraging the patients to become active participants in their own unique cancer journey. She says one floor of the centre will be devoted to clinical research. Austin Health has forged a partnership with international organisation the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research, which is dedicated to understanding and controlling cancer. “There will be a lot of emphasis on trials, research and sharing information with other research organisations which is really wonderful.”

Olivia has always been refreshingly open about her journey with breast cancer following her diagnosis in the early 90s. She has done much to promote public awareness of the importance of early detection and is a firm believer in integrated health – combining a number of natural therapies with conventional medicine during her own treatment. “I had chemotherapy as a safety precaution as I didn’t want to take any chances but I combined this with homeopathy, herbs, massage, yoga and acupuncture for nausea. This approach made me feel a lot better and I was empowered by doing something to lift my spirit.” She says meditation helped her to think more positively about her treatment, especially when it came to chemotherapy. “Chemo can be a very scary thing to go through, but meditation helped me change my thoughts about it. Instead of thinking of it as a poison, I was able to visualise the positive work it was doing in my body.”

When asked to give her best advice for people currently living through a cancer diagnosis and treatment, Olivia believes it is important to open up to people on a similar journey. “It’s wonderful to talk to another person who has been through the same treatment. I found that really helpful as you can discuss your fears about what lies ahead, whether it be surgery, chemotherapy or other treatments. That’s why I’m excited about the Wellness Centre we are developing, as it will be a place where cancer patients can have this contact with others going through the same thing, while receiving a lot of really good information.”

On the flip side, Olivia reckons it is equally important not to continually discuss the illness with absolutely everybody. “People are always asking how you are, which can be quite draining. I believe it’s wise to choose a friend, or member of the family who can update others on your progress. When I was going through my treatment I wanted people to talk to me about the good things that were happening, and not always talk about my illness.” She says positive thinking is also important, as well as taking the time for nurturing and cutting out the things that are stressful. “As women we often put ourselves last, but if you have cancer it is time to take stock of that.”

Since her own brush with cancer, Olivia has made several albums with an inspirational feel, including ‘Gaia’ and ‘Stronger than Before’, which was released in 2005 and features songs of courage and hope that relate to the emotions faced by cancer patients and their families. In September 2006 she released ‘Grace and Gratitude’, a relaxation CD which promotes spiritual balance and physical and emotional healing. The album coincided with the launch of her signature line of wellness products for women, which includes the ‘Olivia Breast Self-Exam Kit’. Her latest recordings are a holiday album called ‘Christmas Wish’ and a CD called ’Olivia’s Live Hits’. She also recently released a DVD ‘Live with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra‘ which was filmed and recorded at the Sydney Opera House.“My journey with cancer has absolutely influenced my music which is directly related to what I’ve gone through. I find it very inspirational, as I really believe that music can be healing to all living things. It’s been proven that plants grow healthier and stronger when they are played classical music, and that people also respond positively to the healing frequencies in music.”

In January, Olivia became a co-host and producer on the ‘Healing Quest’ television series, a programme that provides the most current information on natural approaches to health and wellness. She is also a partner in ‘Gaia’, a health retreat and spa in Byron Bay, New South Wales which provides guests with “beautiful treatments and experiences” while enjoying healthy foods prepared from the retreat’s own organic garden.

While there have been many charmed moments in her rich, full life, Olivia has also overcome her share of challenges. As well as her battle against breast cancer she has lived through the breakdown of her marriage to fellow actor, Matt Lattanzi, the mysterious disappearance of her long term partner Patrick McDermott, and the eating disorder of her daughter Chloe. Despite these challenges, Olivia’s indomitable spirit continues to shine, and she has recently found love again with a long time friend, John Easterling, a natural health guru, and founder of the Amazon Herb Company. “I’m in a really good place. I’m lucky and fortunate to be here, to be healthy, and to be doing what I love. I have a lot of love and support in my life.” Chloe has overcome her battle with anorexia and is keen to follow in her mother’s footsteps in the music industry. “She is releasing a single and doing a show this year. She’s really doing great.”

While she is busy with her many projects, and the support she offers several other charitable and environmental organisations, Olivia is also firmly focused on the Great Walk, and the establishment of the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Centre. “The hospital is a huge thing for me, and it is such a big project. When we started out I believed we could make it happen but had no idea how. But we’ve done it, we’re nearly there, and it’s very exciting.” She says her philanthropic work is a very important part of her life. “It’s feels so good to give. It’s much better than receiving I think.”

Olivia says that while cancer is not something she would wish on anybody, she is grateful for her own personal journey with the disease. “I have learned some big lessons from it and it was a great gift to me. Getting breast cancer is a big part of my journey through life and I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now if it hadn’t happened.”