TV’s Nancy O’Dell: Mother, Author, Health Advocate

Nancy O’Dell talks about her new book, her baby, and the loss of her mother to Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on April 24, 2009
5 min read

In her new book, Full of Life, Access Hollywood co-host Nancy O’Dell writes of being a high-profile television star while nursing her new baby, Ashby, and caring for her mother, who developed amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a progressive and fatal neuromuscular disorder also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. O’Dell recently talked to WebMD Magazine about her experience juggling all three roles -- plus her stint on Dancing with the Stars.

How did you cope with your mother’s initial diagnosis in October 2007?

It was Nov. 1, 2007. I won’t ever forget that horrible date. It was tough. Most people with ALS live for three to five years after diagnosis. In my mom’s case, it was less than a year. She was misdiagnosed for a year and half. She had lost her voice so at first we thought it was a cold. Doctors said it was everything from acid reflux to Parkinson’s disease. Several doctors said it was just old age, but she was 73 and we knew it wasn’t old age. I know a lot of 90-year olds who still have their voices.

Once she was diagnosed, how did you help keep your mother’s spirits up?

I just kept telling her that I needed her and that my daughter Ashby, who was born in June 2007, needed her. I told her she had to fight with everything she had. It was a huge blessing that she got to meet Ashby and I know that Ashby now has an angel looking out for her. I did get to say a long goodbye to her. Some people don’t have that opportunity.

How did you find time to care for yourself when caring for your mom?

Other than eating healthy and doing other simple things, I didn’t have a lot of time for exercise. I wanted to spend all of my extra energy on my mom when she was trying to fight ALS. I went back to South Carolina every other week to visit her. I spent every spare moment I had doing research and trying to stay ahead of the disease -- which is all you can do with ALS.

You’re working with the Muscular Dystrophy Association’s ALS division. What are you doing for them?

Anything they want me to do. They were there from day one when my mom got diagnosed. A representative walked into the office and said “we will be here every step of the way.” They helped us find equipment and directed us to the expert in whatever issues my mom was having. Now I need to do whatever I can to help them.

It must be hard to be a mom without having yours to lean on. What do you miss the most?

My mom and I were extremely close. We had such a great relationship. She couldn’t have been a more perfect mother. I wish I could call her up and tell her that Ashby is doing this or doing that.

What about your relationship with your mom do you hope to emulate with Ashby?

I could talk to my mom about anything. I never felt like I had to sneak out and I never wanted to participate in anything dangerous because I didn’t want to disappoint my parents. It wasn’t that I was fearful that I would be punished if I missed my curfew, I just knew how much they worried and I didn’t want put them through that or disappoint them. This is the type of relationship I hope to build with my daughter.

What about motherhood is most inspiring or overwhelming?

The love. This is a love like you have never experienced before. I can't possibly explain how much I love this person. With the love, comes a lot of worry. My mom was a big worrier. She always said “I hope you are not a worrier like me,” but I am.

Your book of "mom-to-mom tips" for pregnant women came out in April. Want to share a few?

There are cute things and practical things in the book, which is dedicated to my mom and Ashby. There is a recipe for my mom’s spice cake. The ugly side of pregnancy is constipation. I didn’t want to take any medications during pregnancy and I hate the taste of prunes, but this cake is full of prunes and it tastes delicious.

Did you gain a lot of weight during pregnancy?

I gained a lot during the first trimester. My doctor said, “I don’t want you to diet, but you are beyond where you should be and we don’t want you to gain too much.” At the end, I leveled off and gained between 30 and 35 lbs. What you don’t realize is that you still look pregnant after you deliver. Everyone tells you that you will have a little belly, but you look like you are still five or six months pregnant for a while.

Any “who knew?” moments during pregnancy?

I had no idea that you leak colostrum before you even have the baby. I spent a lot of time trying to dry my wardrobe before going on television because I did not know to wear pads before I even started nursing.

So how did you lose it?

Mostly running, along with some weight training. By the time I got back to work after a three-month maternity leave, I was within three lbs of my pre-pregnancy weight, but when I started to focus on my mom, I put some weight back on.

It’s hard to find time to exercise when you are a new mom, especially if you are breastfeeding. How did you doit?

I would literally go for runs in the driveway between feedings during my maternity leave to get back in shape.

How do you stay in shape now?

Running. I go for three or four 40-minute runs a week. I also do strength training.

Ashby joins your two stepchildren, Carson and Tyler. Any more children in the future for you and your husband, Keith Zubchevich?

We are going to let it be. If it happens, it happens.

How do you balance your demanding, high-profile job at Access Hollywood with being a wife and mother?

It’s tough. When I was interviewing first lady Michelle Obama, she said it was one big guilt trip. If I am at work, I feel guilty that I am not with my family and when I am with my family, I feel guilty about work. My family is my first priority. The bottom line is that there is more guilt associated with putting work before family.

What’s your worst health habit?

Drinking Coca-Cola. In the South, where I am from, we drink a lot of Coca-Cola. I had to cut it out completely in pregnancy and I got massive migraines for about a week and then I never had another headache. After I finished nursing, I started with coffee, Coca-Cola, and Pepsi again and my headaches came back, Drinking caffeine is my worst health habit.

What disease would you most like to see eradicated and why?

ALS. It is probably the most horrendous disease I have ever read about or researched.