Science

‘This was her dream’: Olivia Newton-John’s legacy lives on at cancer research centre


It’s not often a medical institute has to say it is unable to take calls because of overwhelming demand, but that was the case on Tuesday at Melbourne’s Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness & Research Centre, after the death of the 73-year-old singer and actor.

Newton-John has been one of Australia’s most high-profile campaigners for the advancement of cancer research and treatment since her initial diagnosis of breast cancer in 1992 at the age of 44.

The Cancer Council Victoria said the entertainer’s impact on cancer research and awareness had been far reaching.

“Olivia was a pioneer in the cancer field and her work provided inspiration for many,” the chief executive, Todd Harper, said in a statement.

“Her advocacy enabled the work of dedicated scientists advancing scientific discoveries and offered hope to many affected by a cancer diagnosis.

“She led the focus on wellness and the importance of physical, emotional and spiritual support not only for the person going through a cancer diagnosis but their carers, families and friends.

“Olivia’s impact can’t be overstated, and her legacy will continue in the work of world-leading research, treatment and care.”

The cancer centre sits within Austin Health, one of Victoria’s major public health providers.

The chief executive of Austin Health, Adam Horsburgh, told Guardian Australia that Newtown-John’s commitment over the past decade had been integral to Austin’s scientific developments, breakthrough therapies and advancements in patient psychological care.

“Without her drive and her commitment, the centre would not be here,” he said. “And her ongoing support over many years has ensured the success of the centre.

“It has enabled us to provide care and support to thousands of patients over the past 10 years.”

The ONJ centre opened in June 2012, beginning as an outpatient ambulatory centre then expanding to provide inpatient wards.

It is involved in about 200 clinical trials for a variety of cancers, including brain, bowel, breast, melanoma, gastrointestinal, head and neck, pancreatic, prostate and lung cancer.

The director of the Austin Health Foundation, the organisation’s fundraising arm, Debbie Shiell, told ABC radio on Tuesday the centre would not have been created if not for Newton-John.

“There’s no two ways about it,” Shiell said.

“This was her dream and this was her legacy, and it was something that she was really proud of.

“I remember when I was talking with her about it, and she drove around the corner and saw her name up on the building, she said it was better than any billboard she has ever seen.

“She’s so proud of the work she’s done with us here.”

On Instagram, Newton-John’s husband, John Easterling, requested that instead of flowers, mourners make donations to the ONJ centre.

After her original 1992 diagnosis, the entertainer underwent further treatment for a recurrence in 2013.

In September 2018, Newton-John announced her breast cancer had returned for the third time, metastasising in her lower spine.

Following the third diagnosis she told the Seven Network’s Sunday Night program that she was attempting to treat the illness “naturally”.

By this stage Newton-John had become a strong proponent of the use of cannabis oil to treat her pain symptoms, sourced from Easterling’s California marijuana farming business.

Compared with a significant swathe of OECD countries, Australian’s access to medicinal cannabis is limited and remains fraught with bureaucratic obstacles.

Australian entertainment icons who have faced their own battles with cancer, Kylie Minogue and Delta Goodrem, have both paid tribute to the UK-born, Melbourne-raised singer, who was admitted to Aria’s Hall of Fame in 2002 and made a Companion of the Order of Australia in 2019.

“Since I was 10 years old, I have loved and looked up to Olivia Newton-John. And, I always will,” tweeted Minogue, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2005 at the age of 36.

“She was, and always will be, an inspiration to me in so many, many ways.”

Goodrem, who was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma at the age of 18 and who played Newton-John in the 2018 miniseries Hopelessly Devoted to You, posted on Instagram: “The whole world will feel this heartbreak today because the entire world felt Olivia’s unmatched light.”

“I don’t have all the words I would like to say today, but I hope everyone will join in celebrating our beloved Olivia, her heart, soul, talent, courage, grace … I love you forever.”

In 2020, Goodrem launched her own foundation, in conjunction with Sydney’s St. Vincent’s hospital and the Kinghorn Cancer Centre, to raise funds for blood cancer research.



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