Ever since Olivia Newton-John’s first breast cancer diagnosis in 1992, the pop icon’s family, friends, and fans have been there cheering her on. But even as she’s publicly battled the disease, she’s never let it define her: In fact, since her cancer came back in 2013 (and again in 2017), she’s used it as inspiration to help others by opening her own public hospital: the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness & Research Centre in Australia.
This week Olivia is speaking at a cannabis conference in Portland, Oregon â€” which is probably the last piece of news you ever expected to hear about the Grease star. But since publicly announcing her third cancer diagnosis (this time, stage four breast cancer that has metastasized to her bones) in September 2018, she’s been open about how she’s been using the plant to treat her pain and other symptoms.
Olivia admits to being hesitant to use cannabis for her pain at first (especially considering the stigma that still exists around marijuana) but her husband of 11 years, John Easterling, convinced her to take the leap. John has been a long-time advocate for plant-based medicine: In 1990, he founded Amazon Herb Company, an herbal wellness company that has since merged with TriVita.
“I’d heard a lot from my husband about how [cannabis] could help me,” Olivia tells GoodHousekeeping.com. “I was a little nervous because I don’t like the feeling of any kind of mind-altering thing … but I started out very slowly, and I adjusted to it, and it’s really helped me greatly.”
For the past couple of years, John has been growing herbal remedies “pretty specifically” for Olivia, he says. Today, he grows 21 different cultivars (or strains) of cannabis, which he uses to create a product for Olivia that’s made up of 47% THC, 26% CBD, and a whole slew of other cannabinoids, including CBG, CBC, and CBN. (Cannabinoids are the naturally occurring chemical compounds found in cannabis plants.) Rather than isolate a cannabinoid like THC or CBD, as is popular now, John personally believes in the power of something called the “entourage effect.”
According to John, the entourage effect is the idea that each of the cannabinoids and terpenes (aromatic essential oils) that are naturally present in cannabis plants are necessary to help medical patients reap the maximum benefits from the plant. While isolated THC might make you feel “high” or isolated CBD might help ease anxiety, John believes that cannabis taken in its natural state â€” with no cannabinoids isolated â€” can lead to greater results.
Medical experts are less confident about the validity of this idea. Little to no research exists on the topic, and scientists say there’s still no hard evidence to prove that the entourage effect is real: “The lay public has really taken on the notion of the entourage effect, but there’s not a lot of data,” Margaret Haney, a neurobiologist at Columbia University and cannabis researcher, previously told Scientific American.
Still, Olivia maintains the treatment has been life-changing. Olivia’s journey with cannabis really began when she fractured her sacrum in September 2018. Olivia has publicly said that the months following the fracture, during which she had to learn to walk again, were full of excruciating pain â€” and at first, she treated it with morphine. But in an effort to stop depending on the opioid, Olivia slowly weaned herself off by using cannabis. Bit by bit, she upped her dosage of cannabis (and played with taking different mixes of the various cultivars) until she was finally 100% off morphine. “I’m totally off painkillers, I’m totally off morphine, and I attribute that to the cannabis because it was able to take over with the pain,” she says.
In addition to cannabis, Olivia is also taking several other herbal medicines â€” John lists uÃ±a de gato (cat’s claw), sangre de drago, camu camu, and graviola, to name a few. Research on these herbs’ effects on health is also limited, however, and more scientific evidence is needed to prove whether they are actually beneficial.
It’s clear that John has been a great comfort to Olivia throughout her cancer journey (as has Olivia’s daughter, Chloe, whom she mentions when asked about her support system). But part of her notably positive outlook has come from an internal commitment to having hope that she will beat the disease.
“It’s really a decision,” Olivia says. “And once you make that decision, you kind of train your brain to stay there, so it becomes normal … I talk to my body and I thank it for every step it makes of improvement. And I thank it anyway! It’s really a practice because you create your world by what you think. You’ve really got to appreciate things you took for granted. That was my big lesson.”
Of course, maintaining that level of positivity isn’t always easy. Back in December 2018, rumors swirled that Olivia was barely “clinging to life,” with some tabloids even reporting that the pop icon had just “weeks” left to live. Frustrated by the false claims, Olivia took to social media in January to quash them herself with a cheerful New Year message. But the rumor mill hasn’t stopped churning since then.
“Lately, there’s been some silly thing in the paper about my ‘denying my diagnosis,’ or something stupid that got twisted from an interview,” Olivia says. “But it’s absolutely not true. I’m not denying anything â€” I just don’t pay attention to statistics because I think they can tweak your mind into believing them. I’m not a statistic.”
Rumors aside, the pop icon has been keeping busy since recovering from her sacrum injury: Recently, Olivia attended the Industry Dance Awards & Cancer Benefit Show in Hollywood, and in November, she’s scheduled to host an auction where she’ll sell several of her most iconic movie costumes (including the leather jacket and pants from Grease) to benefit her hospital in Australia. And she’s joining her husband at the aforementioned 2019 Cannabis Science Conference in Portland, Oregon, where they’re speaking about their personal experiences with cannabis over the past few years.
“I love learning from John about the plants and what they can do to help people,” Olivia says. “He’s talking at a cannabis convention and I’m actually going to speak with him, which I never would have done … I think our relationship has gotten stronger, even though I didn’t think it could get stronger.”
John couldn’t agree more: “It just gets better,” he adds, after Olivia comments on their relationship. “Olivia’s doing astonishingly well. It’s a long trip, and it’s just beautiful.”
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