MICHAEL J. FOX AND PARKINSON’S DISEASE
Michael J. Fox is a Canadian-American actor, author, producer, and advocate. With a film and television career spanning from the 1970s. Fox was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1991 and disclosed his condition to the public in 1998. Fox semi-retired from acting in 2000 as the symptoms of his disease worsened. He has since become an advocate for research toward finding a cure; he created the Michael J. Fox Foundation, and on March 5, 2010, Sweden’s Karolinska Institutet gave him a honoris causa doctorate for his work in advocating a cure for Parkinson’s disease. The neurological degenerative condition affects more than 1 million Americans, robbing them of speech, mobility and their cognitive abilities.
Fox started displaying symptoms of early-onset Parkinson’s disease in 1991 while shooting the movie Doc Hollywood, although he was not properly diagnosed until the next year. After his diagnosis, Fox began drinking more heavily than in the past; however, he sought help and stopped drinking altogether. In 1998, he decided to go public with his condition, and since then he has been a strong advocate of Parkinson’s disease research. His foundation, The Michael J Fox Foundation, was created to help advance every promising research path to curing Parkinson’s disease, including embryonic stem cell studies.
Fox manages the symptoms of his Parkinson’s disease with the drug Sinemet, and he also had a thalamotomy in 1998.
His first book, Lucky Man, focused on how, after seven years of denial of the disease, he set up the Michael J Fox Foundation, stopped drinking and began to be an advocate for Parkinson’s disease sufferers. In Lucky Man, Fox wrote that he did not take his medication prior to his testimony before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee in 1999;
I had made a deliberate choice to appear before the subcommittee without medication. It seemed to me that this occasion demanded that my testimony about the effects of the disease, and the urgency we as a community were feeling, be seen as well as heard. For people who had never observed me in this kind of shape, the transformation must have been startling
Michael J. Fox, Lucky Man”
In an interview with NPR in April 2002, Fox explained what he does when he becomes symptomatic during an interview;
Well, actually, I’ve been erring on the side of caution—I think “erring” is actually the right word—in that I’ve been medicating perhaps too much, in the sense [that] … the symptoms … people see in some of these interviews that [I] have been on are actually dyskinesia, which is a reaction to the medication. Because if I were purely symptomatic with Parkinson’s symptoms, a lot of times speaking is difficult. There’s a kind of a sluttering of speech and it’s very difficult to sit still, to sit in one place. You know, the symptoms are different, so I’d rather kind of suffer the symptoms of dyskinesia… this kind of weaving and this kind of continuous thing is much preferable, actually, than pure Parkinson’s symptoms. So that’s what I generally do… I haven’t had any, you know, problems with pure Parkinson’s symptoms in any of these interviews, because I’ll tend to just make sure that I have enough Sinemet in my system and, in some cases, too much. But to me, it’s preferable. It’s not representative of what I’m like in my everyday life. I get a lot of people with Parkinson’s coming up to me saying, “You take too much medication.” I say, Well, you sit across from Larry King and see if you want to tempt it.
Interview, April 30, 2002, Fresh Air, NPR
In 2006, Fox starred in a campaign ad for then State Auditor of Missouri Claire McCaskill (D) in her 2006 Senate campaign against incumbent Jim Talent (R), expressing her support for stem research. In the ad, he visibly showed the effects of his Parkinson’s disease;
As you might know, I care deeply about stem cell research. In Missouri, you can elect Claire McCaskill, who shares my hope for cures. Unfortunately, Senator Jim Talent opposes expanding stem cell research. Senator Talent even wanted to criminalize the science that gives us the chance for hope. They say all politics is local, but that’s not always the case. What you do in Missouri matters to millions of Americans, Americans like me.
Michael J. Fox, Campaign Advertisement for Claire McCaskill.
In an ironic twist of fate, the wonderful singer Linda Ronstadt has also been diagnosed with Parkinson’s and as a result no longer has the ability to sing. Her celebrity status, as well as that of Michael J. Fox, who in 1991 was diagnosed with early-onset Parkinson’s at the age of 30, shines a spotlight on a disease that is still poorly understood and where little progress has been made beyond treating for symptoms. There is no cure and the prognosis for decline varies individually.
The former “Family Ties” actor explains that his positive outlook on the debilitating disease has a lot to do with his happiness being in “direct proportion” to his acceptance of having Parkinson’s. “People look at me and have fear and sadness in their eyes, which they think they’re seeing reflected back at them,” he said. “They wouldn’t see what I’m really feeling, which is, ‘I’m OK!’ But people are afraid. … They’ll realize that this is just my life, the stuff I was given to deal with.”
Most often, a slight tremor in the hand or other body part, “shaking without any movement … all by itself,” sends a patient to the doctor. “When we see the tremor that is the tipping point.”
The disease can be highly variable. Those with tremor see a slower progression of the disease than those with rigidity, which is accompanied by more cognitive problems.
The voice is affected because it is controlled with muscular tissue. Patients often have trouble swallowing and breathing, as well. Most often those with Parkinson’s don’t realize their voices are softer.