Why Michael J. Fox Waited Seven Years to Reveal His Parkinson’s Diagnosis (2022)

Like many kids, Michael J. Fox had his eyes on a career as a rockstar. “I grew up admiring rockstars like Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page,” he told The New York Times Magazine. “That’s what I thought being famous was. But I wasn’t a rockstar.”

Many might argue that the Canadian actor is a rockstar — just in a different way. His Michael J. Fox Foundation has raised more than $900 million to fund research to find a cure for Parkinson’s, a disease that has affected Muhammad Ali, Neil Diamond, Jesse Jackson, Ozzy Osbourne, Linda Ronstadt and Fox himself, who was diagnosed in 1991.

Since going public with his diagnosis in 1998, the Back to the Future and Family Ties star hasn’t shied away from speaking out about the disease’s impact on his life and championing the search for a cure.

“I refer to Parkinson’s and the effect it’s had on my life as a gift — and people are completely dubious of that and kind of wonder how I could say that,” he told CNN in 2010. “I...qualify it by saying it’s a gift that keeps on taking, but it is a gift, because it’s really opened me up to more kind of compassionate, curious, risk-taking person."

But between the time he was diagnosed and his announcement, he spent seven years, both suffering and learning about the disease — and keeping his condition out of the spotlight.

(Video) Why Michael J Fox Kept His Parkinson's Diagnosis a Secret

Fox's career was thriving when he first noticed twitching in his hand

For seven seasons from 1982 to 1989, Fox played Alex P. Keaton on the hit sitcom Family Ties, winning three Emmys for portraying a Republican with liberal parents who were former hippies. In the midst of his television success, he also found silver screen fame in the Back to the Future trilogy as Marty McFly from 1985 to 1990. Off-screen, he married Family Ties costar Tracy Pollan in 1988 and they had their first child in 1989.

Life was looking good, as he kept landing starring movie roles, one after the other. But while he was on the Gainesville, Florida set of Doc Hollywood in 1991, something felt off. He noticed a twitch in his left pinkie finger. A neurologist assured him that he had probably somehow injured his funny bone, as he explained to People.

But six months later, things were worse. His entire left hand was trembling and his shoulder was stiff and achy. He consulted another doctor and was told he had Parkinson’s disease, which typically affects patients over the age of 60. He was just 30.

“It was incomprehensible,” he told People. “The doctor said I would be able to function for years and years. But even talking in those terms was strange.”

Why Michael J. Fox Waited Seven Years to Reveal His Parkinson’s Diagnosis (1)
(Video) Michael J. Fox opens up about his health crisis and near breaking point l GMA

He got four doctors’ opinions before accepting his fate

When he shared the news with Pollan, she cried out of fear. “Neither of us quite understood. We hugged each other and assured ourselves that we’d be able to deal with it,” Pollan toldPeople.

It just didn’t seem right. Fox was young and in good shape — and doctors agreed that he must have been misdiagnosed. But after four doctors had the same initial reaction followed by the same eventual diagnosis, there was no escaping. He searched for an explanation. What mistake did he make in his life that caused this?

After ruling out everything from childhood hockey accidents to film stunts, he realized the truth. “There’s just that thing — fate,” he explained to People. “You’re the guy it touches.”

Fox says he was 'so scared' during the early years

Accepting his newfound reality, Fox tried to move forward with his life. At home, his young son Sam dubbed his left hand “the shaky hand” and made a game of it, but at work, it was getting harder to hide. As photographers and reporters anxiously awaited his arrival at the Golden Globes in January 1998, he stalled in the limo as his left arm and leg shook uncontrollably. He asked the driver to take another spin around the block. Three spins later, his medication kicked into effect and he was able to proceed without anyone aware of his secret. He even snagged the Best Actor trophy that night.

It wasn’t that he was ashamed of it. It was just that he had to learn how to deal with it on his own. So Fox continued working. Telling whoever needed to know, but mostly keeping it to a tight group.

(Video) Faces of Parkinson's

Those seven years saw a period where he focused on comedies: Life with Mikey (1993), For Love or Money (1993) and Greedy (1994). “My decision making was ridiculous,” he admitted in 2019 to theNew York Times Magazine of the time. “It wasn’t based on truth.”

Looking back on that period now, he’s able to admit his vulnerability. “I was so scared,” Fox explained to the New York Times Magazine. “I was so unfamiliar with Parkinson’s. Someone is saying your life is going to be completely changed. Yeah? When?” He admits he took on projects because of “time restrictions” and “financial pressures” since they were “inflated in my head,” so he chose as many “quick successful movies” as he could.

Eventually, he came to terms with choosing his projects more strategically: “It should’ve been to do as many good ones as I could. To do one good one. To find something that meant something to me. And it wasn’t until 1994 that I started getting it. That’s when I started to accept the disease — and acceptance doesn’t mean resignation. It means understanding and dealing straightforwardly.”

Why Michael J. Fox Waited Seven Years to Reveal His Parkinson’s Diagnosis (2)

He told TV execs about his Parkinson’s before ‘Spin City’

After the successful 1995 film The American President, he decided it was time to step away from films and stay in one place with a TV show. And that’s when the sitcom Spin City about the New York City mayor’s office came along.

(Video) Michael J. Fox on Parkinson's Disease

Before stepping into the lead role as Mike Flaherty, he revealed his diagnosis to the network’s then-president Robert Iger and the production company DreamWorks’ head Jeffrey Katzenberg. “I said it could get very bad or not get bad. They said, ‘Let’s go!’” Fox recalled to People.

By the end of the second season, he knew it was time to openly talk about what he had privately been dealing with for so long. He revealed his diagnosis to his castmates and then headed to Massachusetts for a risky four-hour brain procedure.

The surgery helped. He returned to the show that falls, but by the end of 1998, he was ready to speak even more publicly and revealed his diagnosis on the cover of the December 7, 1998 issue of People.

Fox remains optimistic that there will be a cure

From the start, his attitude about his diagnosis was clear — and became his trademark: optimism mixed with reality.

That fall, he went back to Spin City, but eventually left after two more seasons. “One of the reasons I left Spin City was that I felt my face hardening,” he toldthe New York Times Magazine. “My movements were constricted. If you watch episodes from the last couple of seasons, you’ll see I would anchor myself against a desk or the wall. Eventually, it was too burdensome.”

(Video) Michael J. Fox: Parkinson's "sucks"

Knowing his limits — and knowing where to channel his energy — became his priority. By the end of that year, he launched the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research and poured all his efforts into its work.

Despite returning to acting (The Michael J. Fox Show, Designated Survivor, The Good Wife, Rescue Me, Boston Legal andScrubs) and writing three best-selling books (Lucky Man in 2002, Always Looking Up: The Adventures of an Incurable Optimist in 2009 andA Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Future in 2010), his true purpose now remains on his foundation. “I still believe in a cure,” he told The New York Times Magazine.

Fox has been known to pick up a guitar at his foundation’s annual benefit and reprise the iconic Back to the Future “Johnny B. Goode” scene — with Coldplay’s Chris Martin even joining him in 2013. After all, Fox is a true rockstar.

FAQs

When did Michael J Fox reveal he had Parkinsons? ›

Fox, iconic actor, author and advocate whose Hollywood career has been marked by worldwide acclaim, honor and awards, launched the Foundation in 2000 after publicly disclosing his 1991 diagnosis, at age 29, with Parkinson's disease.

How did Michael J Fox discover he had Parkinson's? ›

Fox started displaying symptoms of early-onset Parkinson's disease in 1991 while shooting the movie Doc Hollywood, and was diagnosed shortly thereafter. Though his initial symptoms were only a twitching little finger and a sore shoulder, he was told that within a few years he would not be able to work.

What stage of Parkinson's does Michael J Fox have? ›

Michael J. Fox said he is in the "late mild" stage of the disease. For clinical purposes, Parkinson disease is arbitrarily divided into mild, medium, and severe stages. Stiffness of the limbs and difficulty starting movements are characteristic.

What are the two likely causes of Parkinson's disease? ›

While genetics is thought to play a role in Parkinson's, in most cases the disease does not seem to run in families. Many researchers now believe that Parkinson's results from a combination of genetic and environmental factors, such as exposure to toxins.

How long can you live with Parkinson's? ›

Parkinson's Disease Is a Progressive Disorder

According to the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research, patients usually begin developing Parkinson's symptoms around age 60 and many live between 10 and 20 years after being diagnosed.

Can stress cause Parkinson's? ›

Background: Animal studies suggest that Parkinson's disease (PD) pathology is negatively affected by stress. More stressful life events may increase the risk of PD. Stress increases damage to dopamine cells and results in more severe parkinsonian symptoms in animal studies.

How long do you have Parkinson's before symptoms appear? ›

The main symptoms of Parkinson's disease result from low dopamine levels in the brain. Some of the symptoms affect movement, but many people have nonmotor symptoms, too. According to a 2015 research article, the brain changes that lead to Parkinson's start to occur about 6 years before symptoms appear.

How long does it take for Parkinson's to progress? ›

In most cases, symptoms change slowly, with substantive progression taking place over the space of many months or years. Many people with PD have symptoms for at least a year or two before a diagnosis is actually made. The longer symptoms are present, the easier it is to predict how a person with PD will do over time.

What is the most effective treatment for Parkinson's? ›

Carbidopa-levodopa.

(Rytary, Sinemet, Duopa, others), Levodopa, the most effective Parkinson's disease medication, is a natural chemical that passes into your brain and is converted to dopamine. Levodopa is combined with carbidopa (Lodosyn), which protects levodopa from early conversion to dopamine outside your brain.

Can you drive a car with Parkinson's? ›

Driving with Parkinson's

You will likely be able to drive safely and legally for several years after a Parkinson's diagnosis, depending on your age and general physical condition. However, Parkinson's disease may eventually affect reaction time, ability to handle multiple tasks at once and vision.

Why is Parkinson's increasing? ›

Driven principally by aging, this number is projected to double again to over 12 million by 2040. Additional factors, including increasing longevity, declining smoking rates, and increasing industrialization, could raise the burden to over 17 million. For most of human history, Parkinson has been a rare disorder.

What is the new drug for Parkinson's? ›

Levodopa temporarily replaces dopamine, which decreases in Parkinson's, to treat motor symptoms, such as tremor, slowness and stiffness. Right now, levodopa comes in the form of a pill, a dissolvable tablet, a gel infused into the small intestine, and an inhaler to use as needed. (Read more about levodopa.)

Is Parkinson's inherited from mother or father? ›

Can Parkinson's be passed from parent to child? It's rare for Parkinson's disease to be passed down from parent to child. Most cases of Parkinson's aren't hereditary.

What is usually the first symptom of Parkinson disease? ›

Parkinson's disease is a progressive disorder that affects the nervous system and the parts of the body controlled by the nerves. Symptoms start slowly. The first symptom may be a barely noticeable tremor in just one hand. Tremors are common, but the disorder may also cause stiffness or slowing of movement.

Who is most likely to get Parkinson's disease? ›

The main risk factor is age, because Parkinson's disease is most commonly found in adults over the age of 50 (although diagnoses can occur in much younger people). Men also have a higher risk of Parkinson's disease than women.

Can you live 30 years with Parkinson's? ›

Today, most people with Parkinson's disease will live as long, or almost as long, as those without the disease. Medications and other treatments can help make the symptoms manageable and improve a person's quality of life.

Is coffee good for Parkinson's? ›

Motor Benefit of Caffeine in PD Patients and PD Models

These clinical studies suggest that caffeine improved objective motor deficits in PD with the reduced total Unified PD Rating Scale score and the objective motor component.

How can you prevent Parkinson's progressing? ›

Currently, there is no licensed treatment to slow or stop the progression of Parkinson's disease.
...
The main symptoms of Parkinson's disease are:
  1. Involuntary shaking of particular parts of the body (tremor)
  2. Slow movement.
  3. Stiff and inflexible muscles.
17 Sept 2019

Does vitamin B12 help Parkinson's? ›

A study of patients with early Parkinson's disease found that groups with lower levels of vitamin B12 faced on average a more rapid acceleration of both motor and cognitive symptoms, which slowed in some cases after taking a daily multivitamin.

Is chocolate good for Parkinson's? ›

A new study by Dresden University of Technology in Germany has suggested that eating chocolate daily could help ease symptoms of Parkinson's disease. Researchers have found that cocoa may be a potential solution to the low levels of dopamine in the brain that cause symptoms such as shaking.

Can you slow down Parkinson's? ›

“Movement, especially exercises that encourage balance and reciprocal patterns [movements that require coordination of both sides of your body], can actually slow progression of the disease,” she says.

Do all Parkinson's patients develop dementia? ›

One large study found that about three-quarters of people who live with Parkinson's for more than 10 years will develop dementia. Before they develop dementia, they experience milder cognitive changes called mild cognitive impairment (MCI).

How often is Parkinson's misdiagnosed? ›

Because the symptoms of Parkinson's vary and often overlap other conditions, it is misdiagnosed up to 30% of the time, Dr. Fernandez says. Misdiagnosis is even more common in the early stages.

What are the signs that Parkinson's is getting worse? ›

6 Signs Your Parkinson's Disease Is Progressing
  • Medication not working.
  • Anxiety and depression.
  • Changing sleeping patterns.
  • Involuntary movements.
  • Trouble swallowing.
  • Memory problems.

How many years can levodopa be effective? ›

In other words, someone with mild Parkinson's disease who is started on levodopa will need the medication to be steadily increased as their disease worsens. In general, dopamine's potency will wear off after three years.

Do all Parkinson's patients end up in a wheelchair? ›

Although most people with Parkinson's disease do not need a wheelchair all the time, they can use one to get around when symptoms are worse or when going on longer outings. Manual wheelchairs are a preferred option, but require a decent level of fitness and strength to use.

What kind of pain is associated with Parkinson's? ›

Musculoskeletal pain: Because of decreased mobility, postural changes, falls and sometimes fractures, Parkinson's can cause muscle and bone achiness. Many people also have lower back pain and even associated sciatica (pain, tingling and numbness radiating down the back of one leg).

How does Benadryl help Parkinson's? ›

Some of the antihistamines are also used to prevent motion sickness, nausea, vomiting, and dizziness. In patients with Parkinson's disease, diphenhydramine may be used to decrease stiffness and tremors. Also, the syrup form of diphenhydramine is used to relieve the cough due to colds or hay fever.

What medications should be avoided in Parkinson's disease? ›

These drugs include Prochlorperazine (Compazine), Promethazine (Phenergan), and Metoclopramide (Reglan). They should be avoided. Also, drugs that deplete dopamine such as reserpine and tetrabenazine may worsen Parkinson's disease and parkinsonism and should be avoided in most cases.

What are the long term effects of taking carbidopa levodopa? ›

Levodopa is administered in combination with the drug carbidopa (Sinemet® and its generic versions). This drug combination is considered standard treatment for Parkinson's disease symptoms such as tremor, muscle stiffness, and slowness of movement. A side effect of long-term use of levodopa is dyskinesia.

Is it OK to drink alcohol with Parkinson's? ›

A: Parkinson's disease is a nervous system disorder that affects movement, often including tremors. Research on wine consumption and brain health has found mixed results, but neurology experts say there is no harm in having an occasional glass of wine for people with Parkinson's.

Does Parkinson's qualify for disability? ›

Parkinson's Disease is considered a disability by the Social Security Administration (SSA) According to the SSA's Blue Book, which is the list of conditions that can qualify for disability benefits. Parkinson's Disease is located in section 11.06 of the SSA's Blue Book.

Can Parkinson's disease affect your eyes? ›

Parkinson's-related Vision Changes

Dry eye due to decreased blinking is associated with PD and can cause blurry vision. Blurry vision can also be caused by PD medication, especially anticholinergics (such as trihexyphenidyl/Artane® or benzotropine/Cogentin®).

What state has highest rate of Parkinson's? ›

Prevalence of Parkinson's state-by-state

Vermont has the highest rate of Parkinson's at 9.9 per 10,000.

What toxins cause Parkinson's? ›

Environmental Factors in Parkinson's Disease

These substances include the insecticides rotenone and permethrin (which may be found in clothing or nets treated to kill mosquitoes, for example); organochlorines, such as beta-hexachlorocyclohexane; and the herbicides paraquat and 2,4- dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D).

Does Parkinson's run in families? ›

Parkinson's disease can run in families as a result of faulty genes being passed to a child by their parents. But it's rare for the disease to be inherited this way.

What are Parkinson's off episodes? ›

What are off-episodes? The period when levodopa has a positive effect on Parkinson's symptoms is called on-time. Once the medication stops working, a so-called off-episode starts, where symptoms recur. Ideally, levodopa should be given in a way that prevents off-episodes between doses.

Does exercise help Parkinson's? ›

Exercise can help people with Parkinson's slow the disease and control symptoms. It also has psychological benefits, protecting brain cells and often providing social interaction. Choose activities that are fun so you will stick with them.

What is the life expectancy of a male with Parkinson's? ›

The average age at death was 81. The study found that the risk of earlier death was increased about 1.4 times for every 10-year increase in age when symptoms began.

What are the four cardinal signs of Parkinson's disease? ›

The four cardinal motor symptoms are:
  • bradykinesia: slow movement.
  • rigidity: stiffness of the arms, legs, or neck.
  • tremor.
  • postural instability: balance issues.

Did Michael J. Fox have Parkinson's during Back to the Future 3? ›

Michael J. Fox at the 2011 TV Land Awards. After the release of Back to the Future Part III in May 1990, Fox started displaying symptoms of early-onset Parkinson's disease later the same year while shooting the movie Doc Hollywood, though he wasn't properly diagnosed until the following year.

How is early onset Parkinson's diagnosed? ›

Diagnosing early onset Parkinson's disease

The condition is usually diagnosed by a neurologist based on a review of your symptoms and a physical exam. A DaTscan to visualize your brain's dopamine system may help confirm diagnosis. Blood tests and other imaging tests, such as an MRI scan, don't diagnose Parkinson's.

How can I test myself for Parkinson's? ›

There isn't really a test you can do at home to diagnose Parkinson's. However, you can make note of your symptoms and report them to your doctor. These are some of the symptoms of Parkinson's you might notice: Tremors in your arms, legs, or head.

How long can you have Parkinson's without knowing? ›

Years can pass before symptoms are obvious enough to make a person to go to the doctor. There's no 'one size fits all' when it comes to Parkinson's disease — different people will experience different symptoms, and of varying severity. One in 3 people, for example, won't experience tremor.

Who is most likely to get Parkinson's disease? ›

The main risk factor is age, because Parkinson's disease is most commonly found in adults over the age of 50 (although diagnoses can occur in much younger people). Men also have a higher risk of Parkinson's disease than women.

What is usually the first symptom of Parkinson disease? ›

Parkinson's disease is a progressive disorder that affects the nervous system and the parts of the body controlled by the nerves. Symptoms start slowly. The first symptom may be a barely noticeable tremor in just one hand. Tremors are common, but the disorder may also cause stiffness or slowing of movement.

Is Parkinson's hereditary? ›

About 15 percent of people with Parkinson's disease have a family history of the condition, and family-linked cases can result from genetic mutations in a group of genes — LRRK2, PARK2, PARK7, PINK1 or the SNCA gene (see below).

What is Bradykinesia mean? ›

Bradykinesia means slowness of movement and speed (or progressive hesitations/halts) as movements are continued. It is one of the cardinal symptoms of Parkinson's disease (PD).

How much did Michael J Fox make for Back to the Future? ›

For "Back to the Future Part II" and "Back to the Future Part III," he took home $5 million apiece, significantly dwarfing his first check from the franchise. "Back to the Future" and everything relating to it is as beloved today, if not more so, than it was over three decades ago.

What drugs make Parkinson worse? ›

These drugs include Prochlorperazine (Compazine), Promethazine (Phenergan), and Metoclopramide (Reglan). They should be avoided. Also, drugs that deplete dopamine such as reserpine and tetrabenazine may worsen Parkinson's disease and parkinsonism and should be avoided in most cases.

How can you prevent Parkinson's progressing? ›

Currently, there is no licensed treatment to slow or stop the progression of Parkinson's disease.
...
The main symptoms of Parkinson's disease are:
  1. Involuntary shaking of particular parts of the body (tremor)
  2. Slow movement.
  3. Stiff and inflexible muscles.
17 Sept 2019

Can Parkinsons be cured if caught early? ›

Parkinson's disease can't be cured, but medications can help control the symptoms, often dramatically. In some more advanced cases, surgery may be advised. Your health care provider may also recommend lifestyle changes, especially ongoing aerobic exercise.

What is the new drug for Parkinson's? ›

Levodopa temporarily replaces dopamine, which decreases in Parkinson's, to treat motor symptoms, such as tremor, slowness and stiffness. Right now, levodopa comes in the form of a pill, a dissolvable tablet, a gel infused into the small intestine, and an inhaler to use as needed. (Read more about levodopa.)

Can a blood test detect Parkinson's disease? ›

The standard diagnosis of Parkinson's disease right now is clinical, explain experts at the Johns Hopkins Parkinson's Disease and Movement Disorders Center. That means there's no test, such as a blood test, that can give a conclusive result.

Does Parkinson's show up on MRI? ›

Recent studies have found that magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can be used to help find and diagnose Parkinson's much earlier than other methods. MRIs look for specific markers in the brain that can indicate Parkinson's. Often, these markers are present even before symptoms of Parkinson's begin.

Videos

1. Michael J. Fox on new memoir "No Time Like the Future: An Optimist Considers Mortality"
(CBS Mornings)
2. USA: MICHAEL J FOX SPEAKS ABOUT PARKINSON'S DISEASE
(AP Archive)
3. What is Parkinson's Disease?
(The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research)
4. CNN Special: Michael J. Fox Talks to Sanjay Gupta
(The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research)
5. The Tragedy Of Michael J. Fox Is Beyond Heartbreaking
(Grunge)
6. Michael J. Fox's Struggle For Life | Parkinson's Disease
(Biographer Express)

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