Olivia Newton-John told women to ‘trust their instincts’ after first mammogram failed to pick up breast cancer

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Singer and actor Olivia Newton-John has died following a long battle with breast cancer, her husband announced on Monday. The Grease star was 73 years old.

The Australian actor’s husband, John Easterling, announced Newton-John’s death to social media on Monday afternoon. “Dame Olivia Newton-John (73) passed away peacefully at her Ranch in Southern California this morning, surrounded by family and friends,” the post read. “We ask that everyone please respect the family’s privacy during this very difficult time.”

“Olivia has been a symbol of triumphs and hope for over 30 years sharing her journey with breast cancer,” her husband wrote. “Her healing inspiration and pioneering experience with plant medicine continues with the Olivia Newton-John Foundation Fund, dedicated to researching plant medicine and cancer.”

Olivia Newton-John was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 1992 and beat the disease, before being diagnosed again with stage 4 breast cancer in 2017. Since her first diagnosis, the “Physical” singer has been vocal about her journey with cancer, and has dedicated her life to advocating for cancer patients and survivors. That includes educating women on breast cancer screening and early detection.

In 2020, Newton-John shared surprising details about her breast cancer battle at the launch of the Olivia Newton-John Foundation – that her initial mammogram didn’t detect her breast cancer.

“I knew immediately that something was wrong. I had a mammogram and the mammogram was benign and then I had a needle biopsy that was also benign,” the actor said, per Prevention magazine. “And I don’t say this to scare women, but you just have to trust your instincts.”

Newton-John explained that she “felt something was wrong,” so when she met with her surgeon, they decided to do a surgical biopsy. A surgical biopsy – which the Mayo Clinic suggests should occur if previous biopsy results have been inconclusive – is a type of procedure that involves making an incision in the skin to access the suspicious area of cells.

After the surgical biopsy, her doctor revealed she had cancer in her right breast which would need to be removed. Newton-John then underwent a mastectomy and nine months of chemotherapy. “All of this was overwhelming,” she said of her diagnosis. “It was a feeling of dread and terror of the unknown.”

Apart from skin cancer, breast cancer is the most common cancer affecting women in the United States. The American Cancer Society estimates that there is a 13 per cent chance women will develop cancer in their lifetime, and about 287,850 new cases will be diagnosed in women each year. That is why it is so important for women to receive regular mammograms.

A mammogram is an x-ray picture of the breast used to check for breast cancer in women. A screening mammogram can detect otherwise invisible signs or symptoms of the disease that cannot be felt, while a diagnostic mammogram can check for breast cancer after a lump or other signs of breast cancer has been detected.

According to the National Cancer Institute, some common signs of breast cancer can include breast pain, thickening of the skin of the breast, nipple discharge, or a change in breast size or shape.

The American Cancer Society recommends women between the ages 45 to 54 should get a mammogram every year, while those who are above 55 years old can switch to receiving a mammogram every two years. Some women should consider continuing to get their mammograms yearly, depending on their family history with breast cancer.

In the case of Olivia Newton-John, a false-negative result occurs when mammograms appear normal, even though breast cancer is present. About 20 per cent of breast cancers are missed by mammogram screenings, which can lead to delays in treatment.

Newton-John was in remission for breast cancer until 2013, when it had metastasised outside of her breasts. By 2017, it had progressed to stage 4 breast cancer, spreading to her spine.

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This article was amended on 1 September 2022. It originally said that about 20% of breast cancer screenings are false negatives, but that is incorrect. In fact, the US National Cancer Institute says that mammograms miss around 20% of breast cancers.