And so this week’s moment of happiness despite the news.
On Monday afternoon, as I was driving home from the bank, my husband sent me a simple text message.
Olivia Newton John died.
So simple. Four words. The death of a celebrity.
Yet it took my breath away.
Olivia Newton John had been fighting breast cancer since 1992. Her death coming right after my celebration of five years out felt like a punch to my temples. Five years was huge. Yet five years could be nothing.
I danced and sang to Olivia Newton John as a teenager, like most everybody did. In high school, I worked as a kennelworker at the local humane society, and one of my clearest memories is dancing down the aisle between the dog kennels, pushing a cart filled with their dinners, and singing “You’re The One That I Want” at the top of my lungs. It was 1978, I was going to graduate high school, college at the University of Wisconsin – Madison was in my very near future, and I was balancing two boyfriends at once. Me! I was on top of the world and I rocked with Olivia and I swear the dogs danced with me. Though they might have just wanted me to feed them already.
As years passed, I didn’t think about Olivia Newton John much anymore. Not until June 26, 2017, when I sat in an examination room at the Breast Care center at my clinic. The week before, my mammogram tanked, and so did the immediate ultrasound, and now I was going to have a biopsy. The doctor was running late, and I was nervous, so I tried to distract myself by grabbing a magazine off the table next to my chair. It was People, the issue was from June 19, and on the cover was Olivia Newton John. It said that her breast cancer had returned after 25 years. It was located in her tailbone.
I threw the magazine across the room as if it scalded my fingers. Then, I carefully picked it up and put it in the trash can. I shoved it all the way down, past all the paper towels and whatever else might be there. I didn’t want anyone else to find it. Anyone else like me, who was waiting on a biopsy.
The next day, June 27, 2017, I was diagnosed with breast cancer.
From that point on, Olivia Newton John and I were linked again. Me, just starting out. She, on this journey at that point for 25 years already. She was 68 years old at that time; I was soon to be 57.
I posted about this on Facebook, in her honor. To my surprise, I was contacted by a reporter from our local newspaper. She asked if she could talk to me about Olivia Newton John and my own experience, and I said sure.
We talked about the expected things. My diagnosis and prognosis. That day in the exam room. Where I am now. How I felt that Olivia Newton John was just a beacon of light for those experiencing breast cancer. She was diagnosed in 1992. It returned in 2017. She passed away in 2022. That’s a total of 30 years. And 25 of them were free, as far as anyone knew, of cancer. In that time, she did her best to help with breast cancer research, and to give hope and encouragement to those who were bound by the pink ribbon. She formed the Olivia Newton John Cancer Wellness & Research Center in Australia. On their website, she is quoted as saying:
“With more and more people affected by cancer every day, I believe we are in a world desperate for healing, and I’m committed to doing whatever I can to help. I also believe that when you go through something difficult, even something as dramatic as cancer, that something positive will come of it.”
For me, something positive has come from it. I’ve learned how to look for a moment of happiness every day. And I’ve learned that happiness is something you do have to look for in everything that is around you. You can’t wait for it to come to you. It’s already there.
And then the reporter asked me an unexpected question. “How else did Olivia Newton John affect you?”
I had to think on it, because it was a quality that was hard to put into words. Olivia Newton John remained herself. She didn’t become or embody the breast cancer experience.
I’ve known women who have basically taken on breast cancer as their personality. There was one in particular, who tried to create a one-woman show on stage, talking about her experience. Off stage, she wore pink sneakers with pink ribbons. She wore pink shirts emblazoned with breast cancer slogans, like “I saved the tatas!” She wore pants with more pink ribbons. Earrings and necklaces of pink ribbons. Everything, absolutely everything was breast cancer.
She became breast cancer. Whoever she was before, that person was gone.
Don’t get me wrong; I do wear breast cancer t-shirts from time to time, mostly when I’m working out. They remind me that if I was strong enough to get through breast cancer, then I’m strong enough to get through 60 freaking minutes on a treadmill.
But in general – I was me before I had breast cancer. And I’m still me now, although cancer is a part of my life experience. But it’s just that. A part. There’s just so much more.
Just like Olivia Newton John. All the way til the end.
You’re the one that I want, Olivia. Ooo-oo-oo, honey.
And yes, that helps. Despite. Anyway.