Chronic pain can be debilitating and frustrating—but these celebrities show that it can also be inspiring. Here we show how these seven stars make choices every day to live fully, balancing treatments and pain management while inspiring the rest of us to live our best lives.
Health problem: Fibromyalgia
The controversial Irish rocker stepped away from the limelight in 2003, in large part because she suffered from fibromyalgia. Two years later, she was back, saying, “Fibromyalgia is not curable. But it’s manageable. You get to know your patterns and limits, so you can work and plan around it.” O’Connor, who also has bipolar disorder, manages to juggle her career and raising four children—noting that her high pain threshold and ability to lower her expectations that her life be “perfect” help take the pressure off herself to feel good all the time.
Health problem: Polycystic Ovary Syndrome and Endometriosis
Former trainer for The Biggest Loser and current co-host of The Doctors, Jillian Michaels kept her diagnosis of endometriosis and Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) to herself for years, worried that it would damage her “beacon of health” reputation. The conditions can cause pain—in endometriosis, cells from the uterine lining can grow on other organs and tissue in the body; PCOS indicates a hormonal imbalance that leads to irregular menstrual cycles and small cysts in the ovaries. Michaels came forward about the conditions after a reporter’s questions about her plans to adopt prompted her to say she wouldn’t put herself through the physical challenge of pregnancy. She later clarified that since her condition can cause infertility and pregnancy may require her to have surgical procedures, she felt more comfortable adopting. She has said that while she used to suffer from debilitating abdominal pain, she found that eating a diet that includes, among other things, organic foods and non-processed soy and exercising regularly have helped alleviate her symptoms.
Health problem: Crohn’s disease
When she was in college in 1977, the future ABC News/Nightline anchor was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. Her coping mechanisms ranged from humor—she and her friends called it George to avoid having to discuss the specifics of her condition—to growing her fingernails long so she could dig them into the skin on her arm to distract her from intestinal pain that would leave her doubled over. McFadden has been in remission since having 15 feet of intestine removed in 1979, but it’s clear she can also credit her own steely determination with managing the disease: “I decided a long time ago, I wasn’t going to live my life around George.” Her successful career as a news anchor is proof positive of that attitude.
“I wondered, what if I took more risks?”
Health problem: Rheumatoid arthritis
The actress was first diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis—an autoimmune disorder in which the body attacks the soft tissue and joints—in 1992, though she’d experienced symptoms for about a year before that. A blood test confirmed the diagnosis, which, in turn, gave the actress a healthy dose of perspective. “Suddenly all that stuff about having good looks and being sexy took secondary position to being able to walk without pain,” she has said. After abusing alcohol to cope with the pain, she got sober and set herself on a path to not only find a cutting-edge medication that placed her disease in remission, but to speak out about the disease. She went on a crusade to raise funds and awareness for RA (at least 1.3 million Americans suffer from it), earning a Lifetime Achievement Award for her work from the Massachusetts Arthritis Foundation. “It is important to me that people know they have options so they can get some relief from this debilitating disease,” she has said, noting that early treatment is key to managing the disease.
Health problem: Multiple sclerosis
Millions of Americans remember the suave and successful host of The Montel Williams Show announcing that he had multiple sclerosis in 1999, a year after he received the diagnosis that put an end to 10 years of misdiagnoses for his chronic pain, but for which there had been other symptoms dating back to his late teens. Williams says he chose to view the diagnosis, ultimately, as a “call to action.” He went public with his diagnosis, largely to create a sense of urgency to find a cure. Today, he heads the Montel Williams Foundation, which, for 11 years, has raised funds for research toward a cure. Williams is also the author of eight books, including Body Change, which outlines the exercise regimen he uses to stay strong and keep additional symptoms at bay. He has said he exercises for 75 minutes a day.
Health problem: Back pain
The actor who is as famous for his anti-genocide activism (and his love life) as his movie roles suffered a debilitating back injury while filming the 2005 thriller Syriana. Hitting his head on the floor during an intensely violent scene, he tore the dura—the wrap around the spine that holds in spinal fluid—and told reporters that, prior to a number of corrective surgeries, the pain was so bad that he thought “ending it all” seemed like a viable option. Despite undergoing surgery to reinforce his spine with bolts, Clooney says the injury has never completely healed, forcing the 50-year-old star to drop out of filmmaker Steven Soderbergh’s upcoming version of the 1960s spy series The Man from U.N.C.L.E. According to Eonline.com, “He said he just can’t do the action and stunt scenes,” revealed an U.N.C.L.E. source who’s familiar with the actor’s health situation. “In fact, I think he’s planning on having another operation during the time he would have been filming.”
Health problem: Back pain
The 2010 Dancing With the Stars champ suffered chronic pain for years after a neck injury from a 1987 car accident. Managing the pain mainly with “Advil and ice packs,” she focused her energy not on her career, but on becoming a wife and mom—eventually marrying actor Clark Gregg and having daughter Stella, now 9. When she joined Dancing’s 11th season, she did it largely because she wanted to push herself after a surgery to insert a plate in her neck (to ease pain and prevent further damage) led doctors to discover cancerous tumors on her thyroid. The cancer had not spread, her thyroid was removed, and no chemotherapy or radiation was needed. “I wondered, what if I took more risks?” She danced without knowing whether she could complete her final dance—the night before the finale, she ruptured a disc in her lower back. But even her doctor, who supervised her carefully, said, “People are better off moving around than sitting around.” Surgery to repair the disc has left her “pain free.”