Editor’s Note: This article is a part of an Op-Ed series, “Second Opinion,” where patient experts share their take on current research, news, and trends in health and medicine. The views expressed in this article do not reflect the opinions or views of HealthCentral.com.
Four-time Grammy winner Olivia Newton-John, an internationally renowned singer, songwriter, and actress (Grease), has been diagnosed with a recurrence of breast cancer.
Originally treated for breast cancer 25 years ago at age 43, Newton-John recently canceled several PR events due to back pain. It was revealed yesterday that the back pain was the result of a metastasis of that original cancer to her spine.
For over two decades Newton-John has been a tireless campaigner in support of other women diagnosed with breast cancer. As part of her support of breast cancer research, she set up the Olivia Newton-John Cancer and Wellness Research Centre in Melbourne, Australia, her home nation.
After 25 years being cancer-free, it appeared Newton-John was out of the woods; most survivors suffer a recurrence within the first 10 years after diagnosis. According to an article in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, reported in the online American College of Surgeons’ ACS Surgery News, the chance of a breast cancer recurrence 25 years after initial diagnosis is .7 percent — i.e., just 7 of 1,000 survivors will experience such a relapse.
Unfortunately, Newton-John is one of those women.
Personally, I was shocked and incredibly saddened to hear this news. Like Newton-John, I was diagnosed with breast cancer in my 40s, an age when a breast cancer diagnosis can be quite dangerous. Like the singer, I reached my five-year cancer anniversary, then my 10-year, and most recently the 15-year anniversary of that initial diagnosis.
At my most recent oncology appointment, I asked my doctor if, since I’d passed 15 years, I could stop worrying. After wryly answering “You can quit worrying when you die of something else,” he reassured me that he’d seen only one case in his career (stretching over 25 years) of a breast cancer recurrence happening more than 20 years after the initial diagnosis.
I breathed an inner sigh of relief; five more years, and I’ll REALLY be in the clear. Most of us, once we pass the 10-year mark, feel quite good about our chances. Get beyond 20 years? You’re golden.
Or so we all thought. Now, hearing about Newton-John’s new diagnosis, I’ll start worrying again — as will many of my long-time survivor friends, I imagine.
Treatment plans and prognosis
According to numerous news sources, Newton-John has decided to treat her recurrence with radiation and “natural wellness therapies.” She says she expects to be back on tour later this year.
This recurrence does mean that Newton-John has joined the ranks of metastatic (stage IV) breast cancer survivors. While many stage IV survivors live quite a few years, metastatic breast cancer is considered a fatal disease.
All of us who’ve been there — Newton-John’s fellow breast cancer survivors — are no doubt feeling her pain today at this totally unexpected and devastating turn of events.
PJ Hamel is senior digital content editor and food writer at King Arthur Flour, and a James Beard award-winning author. A 16-year breast cancer survivor, her passion is helping women through this devastating disease. She manages a large and active online survivor support network based at her local hospital and shares her wisdom and experience with the greater community via HealthCentral.com.