Over more than 20 years, Professor Jonathan Cebon, former Medical Director of Cancer Services at the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness and Research Centre at Austin Health (ONJ Centre) and Medical Director of the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute (ONJCRI), worked alongside Dame Olivia Newton-John AC OBE. The two became good friends and he witnessed her journey as advocate, champion and ultimately, patient, of the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness and Research Centre.
Following her passing on 8 August 2022, our Head of Communications, Avalee Weir, caught up with Jonathan about Olivia’s life and legacy.
How did you meet first meet Olivia?
In the early 2000s there was a pressing need to consolidate and coordinate cancer research and care at the Austin. Led by Professor Tony Burgess, we had an idea for an integrated centre but we needed a huge amount of money and momentum to get it off the ground.
When the idea to approach Olivia to be figurehead was first mooted in 2003, we could never have imagined how defining and influential that would become. It took a while to convince her but following a major meeting in New York with leaders from the Austin, the Ludwig Institute and various Australian movers and shakers in the US – plus a bit of encouragement from her mum – she signed on. Things just grew from there.
Olivia was extremely proud of the centre that bore her name.
What do you think is her greatest legacy?
One of the conditions that Olivia placed on her involvement in the new cancer centre was that wellness be fully integrated into the model of care. Not an add-on or option, but a central component of how patients experienced treatment and care. From her own cancer journey and treatment, she believed complementary therapies, such as art and music, were essential and should be the right of every patient, not just those who could afford it. It was quite trailblazing. As a consumer herself, she advocated for a significant rethink of care and by making it conditional to her involvement, she ensured it would be delivered.
Olivia was also keenly involved in the design of the ONJ Centre building – the aesthetics, the light, the materials – they all had a role to play in improving the patient experience.
The concept of wellness as an integrated component of cancer care is now well established and I think Olivia can take a lot of credit for moving it from the fringes to mainstream.
Have you got a favourite anecdote to share?
Olivia didn’t sit on the sidelines, she really put in for this cause. Back in 2008 we undertook a huge fundraiser for the ONJ Centre – the Great Walk to Beijing – it was a massive undertaking with TV crews, celebrities including Joan Rivers and Ian Thorpe… the whole nine yards. This was a month-long walk, and it was hard going. Despite getting sick along the way, Olivia did the entire thing with a smile on her face and huge capacity to bring everyone else on the journey with positivity and joy. There were no toilets in many sections of the Great Wall, so the entourage had to manage with a porta-loo in a red tent – coined the Olivia Newton ‘John’, to her great amusement.
What do you think drove her to be so active in cancer research?
Olivia was a highly intelligent, dynamic person with a real curiosity about the world. Her family heritage is littered with musical, medical and scientific high achievers, including her grandfather who won the Nobel Prize for Physics.
Obviously, she wasn’t a scientist herself, but she was keen to understand and learn about the research being done and loved talking to the researchers at the ONJCRI.
Jonathan interviews Olivia at the VCCC Alliance Research Conference.
She’d look for the connectivity between the research and care that people with cancer received. She didn’t want things compartmentalised, she viewed it as a continuum of care from the biology to bedside care and everything that wrapped around that.
She advocated strongly for clinical trials of medicinal cannabis as palliation for symptoms and other potential benefits, and this trial is still running at the centre and other VCCC Alliance member hospitals, with funding from the Victorian Cancer Agency.
How would you characterise her cancer experience and how she coped?
In 2017, Olivia had come back to Australia to participate in the annual ONJ Centre Wellness Walk. Despite experiencing bone pain she did the walk with characteristic good humour and a smile, but the next day we admitted her to the centre for scans which revealed the extent of the cancer.
She stayed as a patient for several weeks, jokingly describing herself as the ‘undercover boss’ and experiencing the comprehensive, integrated care that she had advocated for.
She developed wonderful relationships with her treating team and all the staff. Olivia genuinely valued and appreciated the quality of their work. She wasn’t particularly mobile for a while but did art therapy and music therapy and saw this as an integral part of her treatment and recovery.
Prof Jonathan Cebon with Dame Olivia Newton-John and Prof Grant McArthur at the 2019 VCCC Alliance Research Conference.
How will you remember Olivia?
Everyone says it because it is true: Olivia had a big heart. She was a truly warm and generous person who gave a huge amount to others.
I remember when she came back for a visit one year: she went around the oncology and haematology wards and sat on the bed with every single patient. Probably 100 of them.
This wasn’t a photo opportunity, she didn’t do it for the glory. She brought hope and encouragement to each person. That’s just who she was.
The annual Olivia’s Walk for Wellness will take place on Sunday 9 October. Funds raised from the Walk go directly into funding the wellness programs at the Olivia Newton-John Centre. You can support Olivia’s legacy by joining the Walk this year either in Melbourne or virtually from wherever you are in the world and bring love and light to those with cancer.
Austin Health is a member of the VCCC Alliance.