July 18, 2001
David Lander, Actor
Living with an incurable disease is difficult on many levels. It presents tremendous physical challenges, and can also be emotionally complex. For celebrities, living with an incurable disease presents special problems, since it is not easy to stay private in the public eye. When actor David Lander, best know for his role as "Squiggy" on the classic sitcom "Laverne & Shirley", started experiencing symptoms of multiple sclerosis in 1984, the condition not only incapacitated him physically but financially as well. Below, Lander shares his story.
When did you first start experiencing symptoms of MS? And how did it affect your work?
DAVID LANDER: I noticed that while shooting -I was having a lot of difficulty with my balance. They thought that I was drunk and they fired me and I knew I wasn't drunk. About two months later, I started falling down a lot more than I expected. I knew something was wrong, but I was just kind of hoping it would blow over. Then I had a really shocking reality check when I got out of bed one day and went splat right on the floor. I just couldn't feel my legs and I couldn't walk.
How did you feel when you were diagnosed with MS?
At the time it was strange, because I did want to have a name for what was happening to me. I said, 'Well, whatever this is, it must be called something and once we find out what it's called, then we can work on curing it.' But then I was told it was multiple sclerosis. And the doctor said, "There is no cure. It will only get worse." And at that time, of course, there was nothing - no treatments out there. Now they have the ABC drugs: Avonex, Betaseron and Copaxone. I take Avonex and that really slows the progression. But when I was first diagnosed, we didn't have that.
Why did you initially decide to keep your diagnosis a secret?
When I started walking again and they discharged me from the hospital, I told my wife we must keep this a secret, because if the doctor thinks that MS means I'll never walk again, what's the chance of anybody in show business being any more enlightened? I knew I was feeling OK now and didn't want to test the waters by saying "Hey, I have MS." I figured maybe they'd throw me a dinner and I'd get a movie of the week, but that would be about it. So the secret was kept.
When I was working and hiding it, at times I got fired from a show because they thought I was drinking. I was relieved they didn't think I had MS because with drinking, at least it's curable. They've got a Betty Ford clinic. We don't have a clinic to cure for MS. It's amazing the compromises that you put yourself through.
Eventually, the stress of living secretly with this disease became too much. How did you decide to go public with your diagnosis?
I started thinking, "I want out of this ridiculous shell I've put myself into, and lying about it." Once you lie about it, you're bringing everyone you've told into the lie, which in this case was specifically my wife and my daughter. When people would question them about me when I left the room, they would have to come up with some lie or excuse just to protect me. In my dreams, I would reveal my diagnosis like Michael J. Fox did, in the fourth year of a hit TV series, saying, "Listen, I've shown you I can function. I'm working, I'm making money, I'm a TV star and I have MS." But it wasn't going to happen that way, so this is the way I guess it was meant to be.
And how did revealing your diagnosis change your life?
What was really great was hearing from other people who had MS. "Courage" was a word I heard a lot, which is flattering, but I never really saw myself as a brave individual. To me, courage is a fireman rushing in and saving a five-year-old boy from a blazing fire, but my trying to hide my MS and deny MS-I didn't think was particularly brave. I think what I'm doing now may be a lot braver, but I don't know if 'brave' is the right word at all. But it's certainly better, because maybe I'm helping people. And they're helping me because there is this great exchange.
I continue to work in show business and that's good. I think that it's important that people, especially the newly diagnosed people, see that you can function with this thing. It isn't the end of the world. Now there are treatments for it. You can start early, a lot earlier than I did, and you can live a good, useful, creative existence, and that's the most important thing that you can do in life.
Copyright 2001 Healthology, Inc.