Nick Cannon: A Warrior in the Fight Against Lupus

He's changed his lifestyle, not his work ethic, to manage the autoimmune disorder.

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on April 14, 2016
8 min read

Some mornings, Nick Cannon struggles 30 minutes to get out of bed.

“I don’t necessarily look sick, but there are times when I wake up and I can’t move,” says Cannon, who talks candidly about lupus, the chronic illness that was diagnosed in 2012 and that he’ll live with for the rest of his life. “It’s a tough disease.”

At the moment, the 35-year-old comedian, musician, actor, director, and producer is at a NASCAR track in Memphis, where he’s at work on the eighth season of his popular MTV improv comedy series Wild ’N Out.

Also in the works for this summer is season eleven of America’s Got Talent, which Cannon has hosted since 2009. He calls both “the best summer jobs in the world.”

“Currently, I’m on 12 television shows, I’ve got movies coming out this year, music, and touring,” Cannon says. “People are like, 'Man, I thought you were supposed to be slowing down.'”

He knows he needs to. Last July, his hectic schedule landed him in the hospital. He'd gotten dangerous blood clots and other lupus complications. He snapped a selfie while in his bed. His Instagram confession read, “Sometimes I can be a little too bull headed and stubborn. I gotta stop running my body to the ground.”

Cannon, used to nights with little to no sleep, to working nonstop, now has to work at finding and maintaining a balance. “Before the lupus, I was always one who burned the candle at both ends. That still drives me quite a bit. But with that mentality comes a responsibility to take care of myself.”

At the tail end of 2011, Cannon began to feel fatigued and his knees started to swell. A few days into 2012, he was hospitalized in Aspen, CO, where he’d been celebrating New Year’s with his then-wife Mariah Carey and their 1-year-old twins, Monroe and Moroccan. His kidneys, he soon learned, had begun to fail. At first, his doctors couldn't figure out the cause.

“No one understood it, I think, because of how confusing lupus is and how long it takes to diagnose someone with it,” Cannon recalls. “The doctors were quite nervous and scared. There was a lot of whispering going on around me. I’m like, 'Hey, I’m a full-grown man, you’ve got to talk to me about this. What’s going on?'”

The reaction of Cannon’s doctors does not surprise Gary S. Gilkeson, MD, a professor of medicine at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston.

“It’s difficult to diagnose lupus because most primary care physicians don’t see it very often, so it’s not high on their radar,” says Gilkeson, who chairs the Lupus Foundation of America’s Medical-Scientific Advisory Council and is not involved in Cannon’s care. “Common symptoms such as fatigue, joint pain, and skin rashes could be due to a variety of causes.”

Systemic lupus erythematosus, better known simply as lupus, is a chronic autoimmune disease that causes the body’s immune system to attack healthy tissue. Normally, the immune system goes into action only against viruses, bacteria, and other health threats. An estimated 1.5 million Americans have lupus. Though 90% of them are women, the smaller number of men with the disease tend to fare more poorly, though it’s not clear why, says Gilkeson.

Lupus develops most often in people between the ages of 15 and 44. While anyone can get it, African-Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans are at higher risk, likely due to genetic factors.

Most Americans in the age group at the highest risk of lupus know little or nothing about the disease. Cannon had never heard of it at the time of his diagnosis, and it scared him. He worried especially for his children.

“The first thing I asked when I was diagnosed was 'Does this mean my children have the possibility of contracting the disease?'” Cannon says. “The doctors put me at ease and let me know that it didn’t really work that way. That was a relief. I always let my kids know that they don’t need to worry, Dad’s going to be OK. That’s something that I try to put forward each and every day.”

Doctors also don’t understand what causes lupus. Several things may play a role, including the hormone estrogen, genetics, and certain things in the environment. Smoking, for example, may increase a person’s risk -- so can certain types of viral infections. “Different people have different triggers,” Gilkeson says.

Like many people with the condition, Cannon has a complication called lupus nephritis, which causes the disease to target the kidneys. African-Americans and those diagnosed with lupus as children get lupus nephritis more often than other lupus patients. Most do well with proper medication and lifestyle changes, but 10% to 30% will eventually need regular dialysis or a kidney transplant.

Fortunately, doctors caught Cannon’s lupus early, before it had a chance to do real damage to his kidneys. He says his long-term outcome looks bright. In fact, he feels better than ever.

“I’m just as vibrant and as fly and as exciting as I’ve ever been, if not more now that I have the disease,” says Cannon, who practices martial arts, lifts weights, and meditates. “I see it as a blessing, not a curse. I have lupus, lupus does not have me.”

Cannon needed to adapt to new rules. His diet, for example, has changed dramatically. In an effort to control the high blood pressure that lupus nephritis causes, he has cut out processed foods, a major source of sodium. He now chooses fish over meat as his main source of protein. And he’s learned to love fruits and vegetables.

“I love to snack, but now I make sure those snacks are healthy, like berries and fruit instead of candy,” says Cannon, who cops to a sweet tooth. “I’ve become kind of a nerd about that.”

He also drinks a gallon of water a day. “Water has been my savior,” he says. “The disease attacks my kidneys, so I need to keep hydrated as much as possible while maintaining a balance so that I don’t overhydrate.”

The biggest challenge he continues to face: getting enough sleep. “My doctor demanded that I get at least 6 hours and try to stretch it to 8, but I was a guy who was getting 0 to 2 hours some nights,” says Cannon, who is also chief creative officer for RadioShack. “I take pride in how hard I work, but I’ve learned that my symptoms flare up when I overexert myself.”

But his new life has been tough. “Making real changes -- it takes time and it isn’t the easiest thing to do. A lot of people make lifestyle changes for a certain period of time to get in shape. I’m doing it to stay alive.”

Cannon’s not in this only for himself. Soon after his diagnosis, he began efforts to raise awareness about lupus. He started a YouTube series called the “Ncredible Health Hustle,” which documented his daily life with lupus. He teamed up with the Lupus Foundation of America to film a public service announcement in August 2014. That same month, he served as the grand marshal for the LFA’s Walk to End Lupus Now event in Washington, D.C. He’s also participated in events in Los Angeles.

“If I can be an inspiration for others with the condition or a similar condition, then I wear that with pride and embrace the duty wholeheartedly,” he says. “Stepping up and being the face of lupus has actually helped me get through it.”

He wants others with lupus -- or any chronic illness -- to learn from his example and follow his lead. “Don’t sit dormant, whatever you do. Don’t let it eat you away. Keep your mind active, keep your body active if possible. That’s always my message. When something like this is placed in front of you, instead of folding and cowering in a corner, say, ‘All right, this was given to me to hold up and show people that I can beat this and be as strong as possible.’

“Until my last day, I’ll hold my head high as a lupus warrior.”

Cannon doesn’t think of himself as a role model. “A role is something you play.” But if you have a chronic illness -- or simply need to improve your health -- follow his script.

Eat right to feel your best. “You get out of your body what you put into your body. It makes such an amazing difference.”

Plan work, play, and other activities according to what you can do. “It’s really about time management and adjusting. More than saying, ‘I can’t do something,’ it’s about prioritizing.”

Find humor wherever and whenever you can. “We laugh to keep from crying. Laughter is the best medicine. I definitely feel that way. If anything, I try not to take life too seriously.”

Seek comfort when you need it. “For me, in the early days, that meant a lot of prayer, a lot of meditation, and having people who really loved and cared about me being around.”

However you can, find the positives. “Once I got control over it and took destiny into my own hands, I felt like living with lupus made me a better person.”

Put your health first. “I make sure each and every morning that the first thing I take care of is myself. That is my number one priority.”

Long-term illnesses like lupus can strain relationships, lead to anxiety and depression, and leave you feeling helpless. Don’t let that happen, says Los Angeles-based psychologist Debra Borys, PhD, who specializes in working with people as they confront chronic diseases. Here’s what you can do:

Collect evidence. It can be hard to stick to lifestyle changes, so log how you feel in a daily journal, Borys says. You’ll likely see that you do better on days when you follow your prescribed regimen, and that will help you stick to it.

Talk openly. A chronic illness can be tough on you and your partner. For example, you may feel guilty because you can’t do things you used to do. Don’t shy away from difficult topics. Instead, Borys says, set aside time to calmly discuss how each of you feel and find ways to restore your relationship’s balance.

Make a plan. Are you goal-oriented? Make your illness a project, Borys advises. Plan out steps to comply with your treatment goals and stay on top of your to-do list.

Search inside. Borys recommends mindfulness and other forms of meditation, relaxation training, guided imagery, and, if you can safely practice it, restorative yoga.

Face reality. You may need to slow down, so pace yourself rather than push yourself.

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