Actress Teri Garr — who was nominated for an Academy Award for best supporting actress in Tootsie — reveals that she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and has had symptoms for 19 years.
Garr, a comedic actress who starred in Young Frankenstein, Oh, God! and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, also plays Phoebe's mom on the sitcom Friends.
Initially, Garr said she didn't tell people about her illness because she did not want pity and was concerned about her career. But now the actress has decided to go public to help others.
"I want people with MS to know about all of the treatment options," Garr said. "If you have MS the important thing to know is that life will go on."
Multiple sclerosis is a chronic autoimmune inflammatory disease of the central nervous system that characterized by muscle weakness and blurred vision. Approximately 250,000 to 350,000 people in the United States have been diagnosed with MS, according to the National Institutes of Health.
The disease afflicts about twice as many women as men — typically between the ages of 20 and 40. It is not contagious, nor is it directly inherited. It is not considered a fatal disease, and most people with MS do not become severely disabled. There is no cure for MS yet, but drugs can help slow the course and/or the symptoms in some patients.
A Nervous Foot Tick
For Garr, the first signs of illness happened back in 1983 with what felt like a nervous tick in her foot. She was living in New York City, and jogged every day in Central Park, and was tripping as she jogged. Initially she didn't think much of it.
But after she began feeling a tingling in her right arm, she headed to the doctor. The first doctor she saw suggested she get an operation, but she received a second opinion from a neurologist who said that she had a degenerative nerve disease of the spine, and that her nerve was pressing against her spine, and he needed to stretch it out.
After undergoing treatment at the hospital, she felt better and thought the problem was over. For long spans of time after that she would not have any problems at all.
But 10 years later, she went to a doctor in UCLA who said she might have MS.
ABCNEWS' Dr. Tim Johnson says it often takes a long time to identify patients with MS because the typical symptoms are often very common in other conditions too.
"To put the symptoms all together and say this is multiple sclerosis is sometimes very difficult, especially when symptoms come and go," Johnson said. "We're often waiting until we're pretty sure before we say something because we don't want to alarm with person with this diagnosis."
After Garr was diagnosed, her doctor put her in a leg brace, and she was able to walk without much trouble. Having to hide the beautiful legs she was known for was a "small price to pay," Garr said.
Garr is now a paid ambassador for MS Lifelines, a patient service program dedicated to assist persons living with MS and their caregivers. MS Lifelines and the ambassador program are funded by Serono and Pfizer.