At the age of 20, Jamie-Lynn Sigler was a beautiful and successful actress who was starring in arguably the biggest television show at the time. The Sopranos’ star was on top of the world … until she wasn’t. Three months into shooting the third season, Sigler received a diagnosis that would alter the course of her life and career – multiple sclerosis (MS). In a recent interview, I sat down with the mother of two as she shared her reaction to having MS, her initial symptoms, adjustments she’s made to balance life and work and why she’s speaking up now, including her partnership with Novartis and ReframingMS.com.
The Start of Her MS Journey
When I asked Sigler to reflect on the early days of her MS journey, she recalled being very young and unburdened by the possibility of a chronic illness.
“I was only 20 years old and otherwise very healthy,” said the MS activist. “I was in a moment where my career was flourishing.”
Her initial symptoms were numbness and tingling in her feet. When the abnormal sensation spread, she underwent an evaluation. “I was not expecting a diagnosis of MS,” remarked Sigler. A diagnosis which she kept to herself, “I think out of fear and self-preservation.” And simply not knowing how others would react, including a demanding and unpredictable entertainment industry.
Looking back, Sigler acknowledges that her reluctance to share her MS revelation was to her “own detriment” as she missed out on years of support that she needed from loved ones. At the same time, her MS symptoms continued to progress – an expected finding for experts in the field.
“Multiple sclerosis is a variable chronic, often progressive, autoimmune condition affecting the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord) giving neurological symptoms that can differ for each person,” explains John Baker, MD, a neurologist at Colonial Neurology. Without intervention, says Dr. Baker, symptoms can get worse.
Balancing The Sopranos and a Neurologic Disorder
It’s important for people to understand that during its six-season run from 1999 to 2007, The Sopranos was (and still is) regarded as one of the most influential television series of all time. It won numerous awards including 21 Primetime Emmys and five Golden Globes. With a wildly popular TV show and around-the-clock media attention, 20-year-old Sigler was also facing a potentially-crippling disease and an uncertain future. What was going through her mind?
“All of that took its toll on me,” disclosed Sigler. During this highly stressful time in her career and personal life, she never reached out for help. She didn’t talk to her friends or to a therapist. “I didn’t want to be a burden,” Sigler revealed. “I didn’t know how to ask for help.” Looking back on those years, Sigler felt that her MS progressed. But the idea of sharing her disease with the public was a scary concept: “I thought, ‘Hey world, I have this illness and I’ve had it for quite some time. How are you gonna feel about me now? Industry, do you still wanna hire me? Friends, do you still wanna hang out with me?’”
Getting Better One Day at a Time
Over time, Sigler leaned on others for help. She was pleasantly surprised by the warmth and encouragement not only from her family, friends and the creative industry, but also the MS community which the actress described as “really tight-knit, strong and fierce.” She also teamed up with the Swiss pharmaceutical giant, Novartis, to create a three-step guide for people living with MS based on three R’s – Reflect, Reframe and Reach Out – outlined by ReframingMS.com. By reaching out, Sigler was able to create a support system and was shocked by not only how much people wanted to help but by how much help was available.
Today, Sigler leads a healthy and productive life. She sees an MS specialist who provides treatment options that work best for her. Sigler urges people to be honest with their physician, to share their symptoms and their feelings. Dr. Baker agrees.
“The best way to manage one’s multiple sclerosis is to be compliant with treatment, to be forthcoming with your neurologist about your symptoms, and to take care of your general health,” advises Dr. Baker. He also recommends physical activity and overall general health to “tip the scale” from bad inflammation to healing. Dr. Baker points out that exercise has been shown to improve long-term cognitive and physical function in patients with MS.
Sigler clearly leads an active lifestyle as an actress, wife, mother, activist and host of the podcast, Not Today, Pal – a collaborative project with her friend and former The Sopranos co-star, Robert Iler. Sigler is also a firm believer in self-care. “Meditation is number one,” shared Sigler. She described her experience sitting across her “beautiful Guruji” at an ashram in India and learning to accept herself, including multiple sclerosis. “A diagnosis is a hard thing to accept,” Sigler confessed. “But the moment you do, you also accept all the feelings, all of the options, all of the possibilities.”
As a physician, media health communicator, YouTube host and founder of a speaking/training company, SITA MED, I can certainly relate to high-stress living! I can also vouch for the importance of connection, on leaning on others for everyday activities like buying groceries and doing the laundry. Ask for help; there’s no shame in this. Like Sigler, I am a strong advocate and dedicated practitioner of self-care. In addition to daily meditation, I exercise, stay hydrated, do things I enjoy and get plenty of sleep. If you’re one of the 133 million Americans with a chronic illness, be sure to manage your condition with medications (if advised), good nutrition, exercise and self-care. It never hurts to reflect, reframe and reach out!