Musician, actress and activist Dame Olivia Newton-John died yesterday at her ranch in Santa Barbara, California, surrounded by family and friends. One of my first thoughts upon reading the news was that the feeling of being together with your loved ones in a beautiful place with expansive views seems like a peaceful and connected way to spend those last moments.
Newton-John, best known for her happy pop melodies and her iconic role as the good-natured teen turned Sandy Olsson style queen in Greasewas diagnosed with breast cancer in 1992. She lived with the diagnosis for 30 years and has been an advocate for children’s health and causes for the past three decades.
In an interview of The Guardian in 2020, at his ranch in South CaliforniaNewton-John said, “I don’t consider myself cancerous. I also don’t want to see it as a fight because I don’t like war.”
“I don’t like to fight in any case, either outside or in a real war inside my body. I choose not to see it that way. I want my body to be healthy and in balance.”
Newton-John’s decision to eschew the traditional narrative of “fighting” cancer is inspiring. All the time we are exposed to the discourse that people “win” or “lose” a “fight” against the disease, something that can be completely out of their control. He puts a value judgment on health (and ill health) and makes recovering from cancer, or die from it, falls back on the idea of strength. If someone dies from cancer, it is not because he is “weak” or “has not fought hard enough.”
My grandmother was diagnosed with breast cancer about 15 years ago. Fortunately, she still lights up our lives (and hardly distracted her attention from the Women’s European Championship this summer)But if breast cancer meant she was gone, I don’t think it would have been because she “lost” or didn’t show enough strength or determination to “beat” the disease.
In 2020, the 11,7 % of all cancers diagnosed were female breast cancer, making it the most common cancer worldwide. In the same year, more than 2.2 million women were diagnosed with breast cancer and 685,000 died worldwide. Because of the family history, it may also be a reality for me later in life, and I hope I can approach the diagnosis with the same compassion and wisdom as Newton-John.
His mention of “balance” in your health and body is also worth exploring, especially since balance is something that is often lacking in our hectic daily lives, driven by the gears of capitalism and the financial inequalities it inevitably causes, which they leave so many of us on an eternal treadmill, constantly seeking to keep our heads above water.
Of course, while Newton-John may have been better able to afford this balance (having a net worth of $60 million), it’s true that treating our bodies as more than machines in the service of work is simply a dream of luxury for thousands of people. of millions of people in this world. However, balance within the body is worth fighting for, something I had to learn the hard way after years of debilitating symptoms of endometriosis. (It may not be wise to live on coffee and cigarettes, avoid all forms of exercise, and ignore every signal from your body until the pain is so intense that it feels like you’re going blind!)
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Olivia Newton-John is right about war and strife: conflict and aggression damage everything they touch. Ill health is not a battle, and seeing it only as such creates useless categories of winners and losers. Working with your body, in all its stages, is preferable to working against it.
Newton-John’s legacy will live on through her advocacy work, her music, and the enduring popularity of Grease (although we better not talk about the problematic message of ‘Summer Nights’ or the way Sandy changes her entire personality and style for a man). But let’s not forget her approach to dealing with cancer and her conscious choice not to see her diagnosis as a “war” within her body.
There is enough conflict in this world already, along with the suffering and destruction that comes with it, so let’s not put this narrative into our bodies as well.