Actor Michael J. Fox has become one of the most vocal advocates of Parkinson’s research and helped raised billions for the cause in the decades since his diagnosis. But before that, he was in “seven years of denial,” he said on Sunday.
The “Back to the Future” and “Family Ties” star discussed his struggle with accepting his Parkinson’s Disease diagnosis while accepting the Academy Awards’ Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award on Sunday. The award, an honorary Oscar statuette, is given to an “individual in the motion picture industry whose humanitarian efforts have brought credit to the industry,” according to The Academy’s website.
During his acceptance speech, Fox said it was an “unexpected honor” as he talked about his journey from a high school dropout in Canada to an award-winning actor.
“I did leave high school in the 11th grade, sold my guitar and moved to L.A.,” he told the audience. “…I told my history teacher of my plan and he said, ‘Fox, you’re not gonna be cute forever.’ I had no idea how to respond to that, so I said, ‘Maybe just long enough, sir. Maybe just long enough.’ It turns out we were both right.”
It only took a few years for his career to “hit full stride.”
“During my first days then months then years in the American film and television industry, I booked some jobs, ducked some landlords, dove in a few dumpsters and eventually I found myself unbelievably on a TV series called ‘Family Ties,'” Fox said on Sunday. “…I was on top of the world. I had a hit television show, two movies in the can and it was all good in the neighborhood.”
But then when he was just 29 years old, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, a neurodegenerative disorder that can cause tremors, slow movement, balance problems and stiff limbs, as well as depression, hallucinations and cognitive impairments, among other things.
“I was told I only had 10 years left to work,” Fox said. “That was sh***y.”
“The hardest part of my diagnosis was grappling with the certainty of the diagnosis and the uncertainty of the situation,” he continued. “I only knew that it would get worse. The diagnosis was definite. The progress was indefinite and uncertain.”
Fox said his wife, Tracy Pollan, whom he married in 1988, was clear she “was with me for the duration,” but that he was not ready to accept what doctors were telling him.
“Then I entered into seven years of denial, trying to make sense of it all. The kid who left Canada, convinced that he would make anything happen just by working hard and by believing, now had a tall order in front of him,” Fox said. “I told very few people. And they kept my secret.”
Eventually, he decided to go public with his diagnosis in 1998. He was filming the show “Spin City” during the time, and decided to share his story with People Magazine and ABC’s Barbara Walters. He said on Sunday that at that time, it was “the dawn of the internet” and they were the sources to go to “if you wanted to get news out.”
“What happened next was remarkable: The outpouring of support from the public at large and the beautiful reaction from all of my peers in the entertainment business. All of you, thank you. … It was transformative.”
“It struck me that everything I had been given – success, my life with Tracy, my family – had prepared me for this profound opportunity and responsibility. It was a gift.”
It was then that Fox went on to learn more about the disease. He spoke with others who had been diagnosed, doctors and leading scientists and found that what was needed most was finances for further research.
Two years after he went public with his diagnosis, he launched the Michael J. Fox Foundation to do just that. He told The Academy audience on Sunday that he originally wanted to call it “PD Cure” but when he told the name to his wife, she asked, “Pedicure?” And the rest was history.
Today, his foundation has raised more than $1.5 billion in Parkinson’s research, Fox said. According to its website, the foundation has also helped fund 20 early-stage therapeutic programs, funded or sponsored “scores” of clinical trials and built “the most robust dataset and biosample library in the history of Parkinson’s research.”
But even with that impact, Fox said Sunday “there was nothing heroic about what I did.”
“I am so grateful to all these people and thousands more who will make a world without Parkinson’s a reality,” he said. “…It’s humbling in the deepest way to stand here today and accept your kindness and approbation when truly the effort is being driven by others so deserving of this attention.”