Jamie-Lynn Sigler Opens Up About Life With MS

The actor shares how fear and worry led her to hide her condition.

From the WebMD Archives

Early one evening in 2002, Jamie-Lynn Sigler, then 21, walked into her New York City apartment after filming an episode of the HBO series The Sopranos. (She played Meadow, daughter of Mafia boss Tony Soprano, portrayed by the late James Gandolfini.)

Planning to perform at an event that night, she was home to get ready. Soon after stepping into the shower, she noticed a heaviness in her leg.

"It was that feeling right before you get pins and needles -- that weird tingling, like your legs are asleep," Sigler says. About a year earlier, she had a similar sensation and was diagnosed with Lyme disease. "I didn't know if this was a relapse or what it was," she says. "I was just scared, and I was nervous."

She asked her parents to take her to the hospital, where she had a spinal tap and an MRI and was admitted overnight. The next morning, the tingling was gone and she expected to go home. But then, she says, "the doctor came in and told me I had MS."

Sigler knew next to nothing about the disease and equated it to being wheelchair-bound. "I was confused. I thought it was a mistake. I didn't know what was going on."

A New Reality

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a disease that affects the central nervous system, disrupting signals between the brain and body. Common symptoms are fatigue, numbness, weakness, stiffness, and visual problems. Most people have flare-ups -- also called relapses -- then periods when symptoms get better or go away.

Doctors aren't sure what causes MS, but they suspect a combination of genes and environment. Misdiagnosis is common because many diseases have similar symptoms.

With proper care, people with the condition can do well. "The future is very bright for MS patients," says Revere Kinkel, MD, director of the Multiple Sclerosis Center at the University of California, San Diego. Many safe treatments are available, and more are in the pipeline.

Hidden Truths

Even though her doctor reassured Sigler she could live a full life, she wasn't ready to face the diagnosis. Brushing it aside, she accepted a starring role in Broadway's Beauty and the Beast, performing eight shows a week.

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For several years, Sigler had few symptoms. But when she found herself entangled in a divorce with her then-husband, actor A.J. Discala, things took a turn for the worse. Her right side became weak and she started having balance and bladder problems.

Sigler turned to a medical professional in the entertainment industry for help. "He told me, 'I'm going to pretend you never told me you have MS, and you are never going to tell anyone at work. You will get fired. No one will hire you. People will judge you. Keep it between us.'"

And so she did. At work, Sigler blamed her limitations on a bad back. She confided in a few people but kept most in the dark.

Edie Falco, her Sopranos co-star, had no idea. She remembers visiting Sigler at the hospital and being told it was Lyme disease and she'd be fine. "When I found out that she had MS, it broke my heart," Falco says. "Just knowing how difficult it must have been to go through that -- as a kid, really -- and to do it so quietly. She was always so professional, so beyond her years."

Keeping MS to herself became Sigler's status quo, even outside work. She went to every doctor's appointment, physical therapy session, and treatment on her own. When she didn't feel well, she divulged nothing. "I just never involved anybody in my life with my disease. I was really going through it alone."

The isolation wore on her. "I became incredibly depressed," she says. "I was back to living alone and confused and scared about life in general, not just the MS." With the help of a therapist, she worked through her emotions and learned to accept help from friends and family.

A New Beginning

In 2012, Sigler's pal, actor JoAnna Garcia Swisher, introduced her to baseball player Cutter Dykstra. They fell in love, became engaged, and had a baby -- Beau, now 2. In a January 2016 ceremony in Palm Springs, CA, Sigler, 35, and Dykstra, 27, were married.

Sigler still has trouble with her right side, right leg, and bladder. She avoids running and wearing high heels. On certain days she parks herself near a bathroom. "I'm uncomfortable 24/7. I'm always a little stiff, I'm always a little achy," she says. "But I've been this way for so long, it's my normal."

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While she can't race up the stairs with Beau, practically everything else is fair game, like playing baseball and going to the park. Sigler's biggest fear during pregnancy -- which she recalls as "beautiful," "amazing," and symptom-free -- was being unable to take care of Beau. But she clearly can. The couple even hopes to add another baby to the mix.

Sigler keeps her symptoms at bay with a combination of medication and a healthy lifestyle. She swears by eating well, exercising, meditating, and knowing when to say when. "My limits are what they are, and they're pretty firm," she says.

That lesson has taken time -- and scores of different treatments, including shots, IV medication, and pills.

"I have tried -- from what I know -- every alternative treatment," she says. "I went to the Dominican Republic, and I had fetal stem cells injected in my spine for an incredible amount of money. It didn't work. I had this invasive therapy [venous drainage of the brain], where they put something in a vein in your thigh and thread it up to your neck. That didn't work. I've taken all kinds of pills. I've done all types of diets, all types of mind/body/soul, Eastern/Western [treatments]. You name it, I've tried it."

For the last 8 years, she has partnered with Los Angeles neurologist Hart Cohen, MD. Cohen describes Sigler as a model patient. "She's an example of someone who has a really good outlook," he says, adding that she doesn't need reminders to make healthy choices or keep up with treatment.

Opening Up to the World

Over the years, as Sigler became adept at managing MS and as her personal life flourished, one part of her life remained unsettled: her career.

After The Sopranos, she worked sporadically on the TV series Guys With Kids and Entourage. But as the MS got worse, she pulled back. The fear of being exposed made working unbearable. When Beau was born, she considered bowing out. If she quit acting, nobody would ever know she had the disease.

But one day last October, while sitting in a hypnotherapist's office, everything changed. Something the therapist told Sigler shifted her perspective for good. Her secret, he said, was toxic. If she wanted to heal, she'd need to release herself from the shame and guilt of hiding her struggle.

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After a few more sessions, she decided to publicly reveal the truth. In January, with friends and family rallying behind her, Sigler announced that she had been living with MS for 15 years. Having just been married, the timing seemed perfect. "I wanted to show it around a time of celebration," she says. "Walking down the aisle with my husband was walking to this new truth -- and this new me."

Now that word of her condition is out, Sigler says she feels an enormous sense of relief. "I feel physically better because I don't have this stress and this fear that followed me around everywhere," she says. In turn, she's been inspired to raise awareness about multiple sclerosis. By sharing her experiences, she hopes to shed light on the disease.

Sigler feared her career would be over. But after opening up, she scored gigs on two TV series: Baby Daddy and CSI: Cyber. She's crossing her fingers more work will follow.

"I'd love to have something I can channel all my experiences to -- all of this emotion and struggle and hardship and triumph and heartbreak and happiness," she says.

Now, when Sigler watches a movie, she thinks, "I can do that." Finally, after years of hiding, she's happily stepping back into the spotlight.

"I really feel like I can go back to dreaming and hoping again."

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4 Myths About MS

1. You'll end up in a wheelchair.

"A lot of people have a catastrophic reaction when they learn about the diagnosis," Cohen says. The reality is most people with MS don't become severely disabled. Two-thirds can still walk. Some use an assistive device, like a cane.

2. MS cannot be treated.

Not long ago, few options were available. But that's changed. Newer treatments help for early and late stages of the disease. Some, such as alemtuzumab (Lemtrada), dimethyl fumarate (Tecfidera), fingolimod (Gilenya), and natalizumab (Tysabri), may even slow it down, Kinkel says.

3. If you have relapses often now, you'll be more disabled later.

Flare-ups have nothing to do with how MS gets worse or "progresses," Kinkel says. With MS, you can't predict the road ahead.

4. You'll pass MS to your child.

Though a strong genetic role exists, multiple sclerosis isn't directly inherited or contagious. Gender, age, ethnic background, and where you live also play parts. Kinkel says about 1 in 30 families has both a parent and a child with MS.

Jamie-Lynn's Top Tips for Living

Eat well.

"When I don't eat right, I feel it. So I'm all about juicing, protein shakes, eggs, fruits, and veggies. I love roasting vegetables."

Make time for exercise.

"I do Pilates twice a week with a private instructor. Once in a while, I'll go to [an indoor cycling] class, lock myself in that bike, and make it whatever type of class I want."

Meditate.

"There's a Deepak Chopra station on Pandora [Internet radio]. When I get out of the shower, I put that on and close my eyes for 5 minutes. It just slows everything down."

Rest.

"When I don't sleep well, my legs aren't as strong. I'll nap when Beau naps -- I'm a good sleeper -- and I'll put my feet up when I can."

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WebMD Magazine - Feature Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on March 24, 2016

Sources

SOURCES:

Jamie-Lynn Sigler, actress.

Hart Cohen, MD, neurologist.

Revere Kinkel, MD, University of California, San Diego School of Medicine.

National Multiple Sclerosis Society: "What Is MS?" "MS Symptoms," "Types of MS," "Who Gets MS? (Epidemiology)," "Multiple Sclerosis FAQs," "Research Directions in MS: Progress & Strategies."

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