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Olivia Newton-John is fighting breast cancer again

Olivia Newton-John's breast cancer has recurred after 25 years in remission, providing a chilling example of the still-mysterious nature of metastatic disease.

Olivia Newton-John attends the 50th annual CMA Awards at the Bridgestone Arena on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2016, in Nashville, Tenn.
Olivia Newton-John attends the 50th annual CMA Awards at the Bridgestone Arena on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2016, in Nashville, Tenn.Read moreEvan Agostini/Invision/AP

Twenty-five years after she was treated for breast cancer, Olivia Newton-John has postponed upcoming tour dates because the disease is back and has spread to her spine.

The 68-year-old Grease star had a news release issued Tuesday that said, "The back pain that initially caused her to postpone the first half of her concert tour has turned out to be breast cancer that has metastasized to the sacrum.

"In addition to natural wellness therapies, Olivia will complete a short course of photon radiation therapy and is confident she will be back later in the year, better than ever, to celebrate her shows."

After her initial diagnosis in 1992, the Australian singer-actor had a mastectomy and underwent seven months of chemotherapy. She established an eponymous Cancer Wellness and Research Center in Melbourne, Australia, and became an advocate for breast cancer patients as well as other health causes.

That breast cancer can recur decades after effective treatment comes as a surprise to many people, but not to metastatic breast cancer activists. In recent years, they have pushed for changes in the U.S. cancer surveillance program, because it collects data on the stage at initial diagnosis, but not on recurrences or progression. As a result, the number of patients who develop metastases is unknown, and five-survival data tend to feed a misconception that patients who make it to that milestone are cured.

The Bala Cynwyd-based Living Beyond Breast Cancer (LBBC) aims to collect 10,000 signatures by December on a petition to be presented to the National Cancer Institute calling for cancer recurrences to be collected by the surveillance system. Accurate data are important for recognizing trends that can shape public health programs and research.

"The situation Olivia Newton-John is facing is not an uncommon one — to have a metastatic diagnosis long after the original diagnosis," said Janine Guglielmino, LBBC's senior director of programs. "It may seem shocking, but it's not surprising to us."