On NBC’s TV drama New Amsterdam, Dr. Valentina Castro diagnoses a patient with lupus, an autoimmune disease that causes chronic pain and fatigue. After the cameras stop rolling, Ana Villafañe, who plays Dr. Castro, becomes teary-eyed; the scene cuts close to home, reminding Ana of her own juvenile arthritis diagnosis at the age of 7.
As a child, Ana often felt like an outsider, fighting an invisible illness her peers didn’t understand. But when she was 9, she found her happy place and her calling – singing in talent shows at the Arthritis Foundation’s Camp Funrise in Miami, Florida.
“When I’m performing on stage, I go into a different realm,” she says. “It’s not just a distraction from my arthritis, it also serves as a form of self-healing.”
A Star on the Rise
Performing quickly became her passion. She majored in music in college and landed her first professional acting role at age 19 in the movie Dostana. Other TV and movie roles quickly followed, including the female lead in the superhero movie Max Steel.
She made her Broadway debut in 2014 in On Your Feet!, a musical about Emilio and Gloria Estefan – who handpicked Ana to play her. “When performing on Broadway, I would spend two to six hours a day dancing. Doing what I love for work adds to my fuel,” Ana says.
Now 30, Ana co-stars not only in New Amsterdam, a medical drama, but also as New York City Councilwoman Diana Barea in the NBC sitcom Sunnyside.
Despite her busy schedule, Ana starts each day with a morning trip to the gym for strength training. Dance and yoga are also part of her regular routine.
“My right hip is my most degenerated joint and sometimes I have to modify yoga poses due to my arthritis. I’ve been very upfront about acknowledging my limitations with my yoga instructor,” Ana says. “I have a love/hate relationship with yoga,” she adds with a laugh. But certain poses “help to straighten my posture while also improving my flexibility and reducing joint pain.”
While medications help control her RA, she knows a healthy lifestyle is key.
“There are days that can be very frustrating because of pain and stiffness or a flare, but my goal is to work to feel good in my body every day and manage my arthritis in a way that goes beyond taking medication,” Ana says. “Having arthritis forces me to take care of myself.”
Plus, she adds, “Maintaining this level of discipline also helps me stay focused in my career.”
Growing Up With JA
As a child, Ana struggled emotionally as well as physically with arthritis. “Having an invisible illness can be hard,” she says. “People see you as strong even though you may be in pain or have certain limitations. I used to come from a place of fear and kept that part of me hidden.”
Now she owns her RA. When she is on set, standing for hours at a time, she doesn’t hesitate to get comfortable shoes or do stretches to ease her hip pain.
“When I was younger, I would just grin and bear any discomfort, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized everyone has limitations and boundaries, and I’m very open about having arthritis,” Ana says.
She has a lot of young fans with arthritis who follow her on social media, and Ana tries to respond to all of their questions.
“I remember how hard it was to be a child in the hospital for several months or to feel isolated in school because no one wants to sit with you at lunchtime,” Ana says. “I want to let kids know their arthritis doesn’t need to define them, and to encourage them to discover their own passions in life.”
Ana’s Tips for Arthritis Pain Relief
In addition to medications, Ana found these techniques ease her arthritis. “It’s a process of trial and error and finding out what works best for you,” she says.
Acupuncture – While performing on Broadway, Ana started getting weekly treatments, which have been “incredibly helpful” in relieving pain and stiffness.
Bubble baths and Epsom salts – “Sometimes, it can be difficult to find a comfortable sleeping position, so immersing myself in warm water [before bedtime] can help,” she says.
Diet modifications – Ana has eliminated gluten, coffee and sugar from her diet. “It’s a constant process of working to see if certain foods might aggravate or alleviate pain and inflammation,” she says.
Travel tips – An ergonomic travel pillow keeps her shoulders back and helps Ana sleep better during long flights. She also walks around the cabin and stretches at the back of the plane.
Author: Linda Childers
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