Everything Olivia Newton-John Has Said About Her Ups and Downs, from Recurring Cancer to Losing Loved Ones

From her first breast cancer diagnosis to losing her only sister, everything Olivia Newton-John has said about the struggles in her life

Olivia Newton-John
Photo: Rodin Eckenroth/Getty Images

After contending with health issues, experiencing the heartbreaking disappearance of a boyfriend and losing loved ones to cancer, Olivia Newton-John opened up to PEOPLE in 2016 about soldiering through tragedy and getting to "the best time" of her life.

But shortly after postponing her tour the following May because of severe back pain, she was diagnosed with breast cancer that had metastasized to the sacrum. Her response was typically optimistic: "They're all very positive," a source close to the Grammy winner told PEOPLE at the time.

Newton-John made the most of the time she had left, raising funds and awareness for her cancer foundation and even recording a Christmas album with Grease costar and old friend John Travolta. In August 2022, Newton-John died at age 73, 30 years after she was first diagnosed with breast cancer.

Here's a look at the heartbreaking moments and biggest struggles the Grease star grappled with throughout her life — and how she coped with them.

Olivia Newton-John on her first cancer diagnosis, in 1992

The year Newton-John received her first diagnosis, she had recently lost her 5-year-old goddaughter to a childhood cancer called Wilms' tumor, and her father Brinley to liver cancer. ""It was all at once. Everything just came at me," she told PEOPLE in 2000. "You can't help but feel despair at some point. It's overwhelming."

But she decided to reframe her experience to try to remain optimistic ("I visualized [the chemicals] as gold liquid going into my body, healing me, rather than what it really is, which is poison," she said) which led to her viewing herself as a cancer "thriver" rather than "survivor."

"Survivor sounds like someone clinging onto a lifeboat to me," she later told the Today show. "A thriver is someone who's already off the boat and on land."

Once she was in remission, Newton-John became an advocate for cancer research and eventually raised enough funds to help build the Olivia Newton-John Cancer and Wellness Centre in Melbourne, Australia.

"When I went through breast cancer, I wrote an album called Gaia," she said about finding strength in music. "Everyone at some stage of life goes through loss. We're also connected as human beings. We feel the loss of others. We're hoping it will help people connect and share and feel."

When she had breast cancer in the '90s, the star "did massage and meditation and yoga" to help "keep my spirit positive," she told PEOPLE. Now, her wellness center offers patients all "the things I had done."

Olivia Newton-John Attends Annual Wellness Walk and Research Run
Olivia Newton-John at the walk in September. Scott Barbour/Getty

Olivia Newton-John on losing her beloved sister Rona in 2013:

Rona Newton-John died of brain cancer on May 24, 2013 surrounded by her four children, Fiona, Brett, Tottie and Emerson. Opening up about the "shocking time," Newton-John told PEOPLE the loss was "jarring," despite being "prepared" for Rona's death.

"No one is ever prepared for when the person actually dies," she said. "Your sister is someone you can share things about the family that no one else understands. I don't really have that now, so that was really hard to get used to. I would pick up the phone with something to tell her about my brother or relatives or someone that we'd known forever, so that was really odd to let go of that."

Newton-John started a brain tumor fund in Rona's name after her death and kept her focus on "getting to see an end to cancer" through her wellness and research center in Australia.

Olivia Newton-John on finding love again after ex Patrick McDermott mysteriously went missing:

In 2005, Newton-John's boyfriend of nine years, Patrick McDermott, mysteriously went missing during a boating trip. "I've been through cancer and divorce. Nothing compares to this," she told PEOPLE in 2006.

Years after he went missing, reports alleged McDermott had faked his death and was discovered to be living in Mexico, and those rumors further caused her distress: "It just stirs it up again. It creates that 'What if' again."

"Grief has no time period," she told PEOPLE later about the loss, which inspired her album Grace and Gratitude. "I think people need to know that because they feel, 'Gosh, I should be over this by now.' But truthfully you're never really over it."

olivia-newton-john-5.jpg
David Livingston/Getty.

After mourning McDermott's mysterious disappearance, Newton-John found happily ever after with her businessman husband John Easterling.

"I dated a little bit, but I wasn't expecting to fall in love with him, and then bam!" she recalled of their early days of dating. "I'm very lucky I have a wonderful, beautiful husband who is just so loving and fantastic. I always tell my friends you're never too old to find love. I found the love of my life at 59 going on 60! I'm grateful."

Olivia Newton-John on her daughter Chloe Lattanzi's struggles with body dysmorphia and addiction:

In 2013, Newton-John's daughter — who struggled with an eating disorder from the age of 15 and eventually began self-medicating with cocaine and alcohol — opened up about the difficulties of growing up in the spotlight. "Fame totally messes you up. I don't blame my mother for my problems, but I would never want to be famous or raise a child of my own around the cult of celebrity," she told The Mail on Sunday. "I don't want to say anything to hurt my mother. I think it was very difficult for her. She'd never faced anything like that before and she didn't know how to deal with it."

Several years later, Lattanzi appeared on The Doctors to discuss previous body image issues. "When I was in the height of my body dysmorphia, I had a whole bunch of fillers," she said about plastic surgery. "I look back at myself as a teenager and I'm like, 'What a beautiful young woman. What was I thinking? Why was I so insecure?'"

The next year, Newton-John told PEOPLE the duo "have a great relationship" now and said she's "very proud" of her daughter. "She's doing a lot of things that she loves to do," she said. "She's an adult so I don't even like to bring up all the old stuff because she's moving through it. She's strong."

Olivia Newton-John and Daughter Chloe
Olivia Newton-John and Daughter Chloe Lattanzi.

Lattanzi and Newton-John remained close throughout Lattanzi's experience and Newton-John's diagnoses; after the 2017 announcement that the cancer had recurred, Lattanzi shared more of her mom's uplifting words on Instagram, "My mom is fine and the one thing she told me is to keep being creative positive and take my mind off anything negative." The two recorded a song together in 2021.

Olivia Newton-John on contending with rumors that she was close to death:

In January 2019, the actress addressed reports that she had just weeks to live, joking, "the rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated" in a video post to Instagram.

The star clarified to PEOPLE in March of that year that she had been laying low after experiencing a fractured pelvis caused by cancer, which caused her to spend her 70th birthday getting treatment rather than enjoying her planned blowout birthday party.

"There were all these things I was going to do for my birthday, but God had other plans," she told PEOPLE. But, she said, "I never say, 'Why me?' I was like, 'Wow, I'm in my hospital that I'd dreamt of building for people to have rest and peace, and there I was getting the best care. It was quite magical."

She said that her focus was on healing, and celebrating every happy milestone that came her way. (In 2021, she rejoiced to PEOPLE that she could attend Chloe's planned wedding: "I'm so lucky to still be doing all these things. I don't think I imagined living this long! I feel very blessed.")

"Everyone has difficulty in their life," she said in 2019. "I try to live in the moment and enjoy right now, which is all we have."

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