We were saddened to hear about the much-admired and loved Olivia Newton-John’s revelation this week that she has been diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer a quarter century after her first diagnosis.
This was especially chilling news to other breast cancer survivors who often live in constant fear that their disease might return and spread after it had been treated, but we also know that her bravery and positive attitude will continue serving as a role model for many others.
According to reports, Newton-John, 68, had originally thought that sciatica was the cause of the severe back pain she had been experiencing.
But she later learned its actual cause was from breast cancer that had metastasized to her sacrum, a triangular bone at the base of the spine.
Metastatic disease, also known as advanced or stage IV breast cancer, means that the cancer has spread beyond the breast and nearby lymph nodes to other parts of the body, including the lungs, liver, brain, and bones.
Although there is currently no cure, it can be effectively managed allowing many patients a good quality and many more years of life.
It does not often present as a woman’s first breast cancer diagnosis, but rather months or years after therapy for stage I, II or III disease, and regardless of where cancer has spread, it is still treated as breast cancer, the primary site. It is estimated to occur in about 25 to 30 percent of breast cancer survivors.
Dr. Larry Norton, medical director of the Lauder Breast Center at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, told us that although he couldn’t comment about Newton-John’s specific case, he could report that significant advances have been made managing breast cancer metastatic to bone.
He said that sometimes radiation therapy is used to treat painful spots but there is also a major role for medical therapies that kill cancer cells throughout the body.
“Therapies that deprive estrogen-dependent cancer cells of the estrogen they need are particularly effective, especially when a long period has elapsed between the treatment of the cancer in the breast and the appearance of bone metastasis.
“Lately we have greatly improved such treatments by combining them with medicines that block molecules conveying resistance to hormone-depriving drugs,” he said.
He also noted that researchers are making strides toward understanding why some cancers cells can grow in bone and that this is opening new opportunities for more effective treatments and even prevention strategies.
“Research is the key to making such progress,” he added.
Co-author Brinker’s older sister, Susan G. Komen, died of metastatic breast cancer in 1980 when she was 36, and was the reason that Brinker founded her sister’s namesake organization in 1982 as part of a promise to dedicate her life to ending breast cancer.
Over the subsequent decades, Komen grew into the world’s largest breast cancer charity, funding breast cancer research, community health outreach and screening, patient advocacy, and related programs in more than 30 countries.
In 1984, Brinker herself was diagnosed with breast cancer and although successfully treated has lived with various side-effect related health issues, and the fear of metastasis.
Newton-John’s recurrence is also a reminder that even with all the progress that’s been made in cancer research, treatment and prevention, her personal vigilance was critically important in identifying symptoms, such as lower back pain in this instance, and following up with qualified medical experts for a proper diagnosis.
It should also serve as a wake-up call that much of that progress came from research publicly funded through the National Institutes of Health’s National Cancer Institute, as well as charities including Komen, and much of that funding — and continued progress — is being threatened by possible federal cutbacks. And we should make certain that taxpayers’ money is being allocated to meritorious research that is advancing the field.
We should never become complacent about our health, nor should we have to live dreading any life-threatening disease or its recurrence, knowing that scientific progress is steadily at work solving medical mysteries and making its results accessible to all in need.
Each of us has each been involved in the world of cancer since the 1980s and seen the number of cancer survivors in the United States alone swell to more than 15 million with their ranks increasing every year.
News reports have indicated that Newton-John seems optimistic about her diagnosis, and that the singer announced via social media she will be treated with “natural wellness therapies” and a “short course of photon radiation therapy” at her Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness and Research Centre in Melbourne, Australia.
We wish her well and hope that funding will continue fueling research into many more advances with this form of breast cancer as well as all other diseases.
Nancy Brinker is the founder of Susan G. Komen, the world's largest breast cancer charity. She has also served as U.S. ambassador to Hungary, U.S. chief of protocol and as a Goodwill Ambassador for Cancer Control to the U.N.'s World Health Organization. Find her on Twitter: @NancyGBrinker.
Eric Rosenthal has been a participant, observer and chronicler of the cancer community for more than three decades, and has been recognized for his contributions to providing insights into issues related to oncology. He is the founder of the NCI-designated cancer centers public affairs network. Find him on Twitter: @etrosenthal.
The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.