Tatum O'Neal Rheumatoid Arthritis

Tatum O’Neal: On Top of Rheumatoid Arthritis and Feeling Lucky

I picked up the phone and heard, “Hi, this is Tatum,” and my vision went black and white for a second. Hearing that raspy voice, I saw Tatum O’Neal, at 8 years old, as Addie Loggins in the 1973 movie, Paper Moon, which was shot in black and white. Tatum, so young, nailed the part and won herself an Oscar.

Back to reality, in full color. Tatum, now 52, needed to talk. She told me she’d reached out to the Arthritis Foundation because she’d been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) “with some osteoarthritis mixed in there” a little more than two years ago. She was so warm and sincere; we talked for a long time about her diagnosis and her experience. She wanted to understand the disease and how it affects people and creates a need for connection with others who have RA.

Although she has a good support system, she said, “I don’t think people understand.”

A Tough Road

Tatum and I stayed in touch, and on a beautiful day in Los Angeles, we finally met. She described how her RA seemed to come on slowly and then all at once. She was already in what she describes as a “low state,” dealing with pain from several neck and back disc surgeries in recent years and unhappy knees – one kept ballooning, refusing to heal after meniscal repair surgery. But this was different. “The pain changed in nature and location. It was scary,” she says. She had difficulty walking, and thought, “Wow, something is so bad.”

Then one night it hit her hard. Her right hand swelled and ached “unbelievably.” A rheumatologist diagnosed RA, and an MRI revealed damage in her ankles. “That was a sad day,” she says.

Tatum began taking a biologic drug, giving herself shots in her stomach once a week, and methotrexate. Not long after, she was hospitalized with pneumonia three times in four months. Doctors were puzzled. Finally, a pulmonologist realized her lungs were reacting badly to methotrexate. “It’s been a tough road,” says Tatum, “very, very scary for my children and for all of us.”

Off methotrexate, she’s on a new medication combination. When we reconnected a few weeks after my visit, she told me that lately her days have been “pretty perfect.”

Hollywood Child

Tatum O'Neal Arthritis TodayTatum is no stranger to adversity. A child of Hollywood, she has had “such a difficult life in some respects, although such a great life in others,” she says. After receiving an Oscar for the role of Addie, which she played alongside her father, actor Ryan O’Neal, she went on to star in Bad News Bears, Little Darlings andInternational Velvet. A young fan, like I was then, would have assumed she lived a happy, glamorous life. But in her 2004 book, A Paper Life (William Morrow), Tatum revealed a childhood of neglect and emotional and physical abuse and a family immersed in drugs and plagued with addiction. She, too, has struggled with addiction.

Sober now, Tatum says, “No question I’ve had high highs and low lows.” In 2011, Tatum and her father came together for a reality show called Ryan and Tatum: The O’Neals, which documented their pained efforts to reconcile after 25 years of estrangement.

Getting Ahead of Rheumatoid Arthritis

Tatum says, “My mental health is so important. I’ve had depression before. With RA, I always try to go to a place of hope.”

But Tatum is motivated to do more than just hope.

“I’ve got to get ahead of it,” she says. “I’ve got to! I have a young spirit and want to be able to do anything in the world that I want to do. I want a long, healthy life.”

Tatum takes a lot of supplements, from probiotics to turmeric to MSM.  She forces herself to eat wild salmon (“yech,” she says), and limits sugar, meat and fried foods.

“I’m trying so hard to stay healthy,” she says.

Tatum is past the days when she would go for daily 7-mile runs with Madonna and do intense yoga with “gnarly headstands.” Now she mostly does floor work, like stretches, sit-ups and Pilates. “The core work has helped a lot.” And now that her knee seems to be healing, she’s begun walking on a treadmill. She’s happy to be moving more, on her own terms.

“I’ve worked out with trainers. They push you harder than you want to go. They don’t understand the damage. I know how far I can go,” she says.

One Day at a Time

Tatum gets the reality of RA. “It’s not curable but you can go into remission.”

Her three adult children have rallied around her. “My kids have been pretty great. They watch out for me.”

“I don’t have parents,” she says, referring to her mother’s death in 1997 and ongoing estrangement from her father. “I don’t think he knows I have RA,” she says quietly.

“I had to restructure my friends and support system,” she says. “You have to find a core group of family and friends to love you and stand by you.”

She feels lucky. “Right now, I can go out and see friends, I can dance and I have my humor.”

She says, “It’s good to have joy. It brings good energy. I try not to live too far in the future or in the past. I live one day at a time.”

Author: Marcy O’Koon Moss, Arthritis Foundation

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4 thoughts on “Tatum O’Neal: On Top of Rheumatoid Arthritis and Feeling Lucky

  1. I am so grateful you posted this article on Tatum and her RA struggles. Mine are so similar with a bad reaction to Methotrexate both pills and the injection. I find it comforting to know that I am not the only one. Also, I too have an estrangement in my family and it rips me apart. I would so love to connect with and discuss with Tatum personally with out mutual struggles just as a support effort as I do not have that support network.

  2. I truly needed to read this. I am trying to find the right drug to help with my RA. Methotrexate did not agree with me thank God. I am on Prednisone at this time, however, I now I can not stay on it. My Rheumatoid specialist wants me to make a choice. I have read over all the different prescription medicines for RA and am scared out of my mind. I will try acupuncture, but I know I have to combat the inflammation.

    Any help will be appreciated.

    Respectfully

    Helen K.

    1. Hello Helen, I’ve read your comment in regard to Tatum’s article about RA. My sudden onset exactly 2 years ago was beyond painful and debilitating. Have you thought about Rituximab or Remicade? I’ve had 4 infusions of Rituximab (called B-cell Therapy) (a five hour infusion) and will be having 2 more very soon to calm the inflammation in my ankles and prevent flareups. I sought out other opinions from more than my own doctor and found the RA doctors at Brigham and Women’s in Boston (quite a drive for me) to be excellent. I did go 2 – 3 times a week this past summer for acupuncture and found it calming and perhaps a bit of relief from pain of inflammation. I have a friend who gets Remicade (2 hour infusion) every 6 weeks for his RA. I do hope you find some relief soon.

  3. Tatum, thank you for sharing. I needed to know someone else had RA in their ankles, as well as hands. With both knees 6 years into being replaced and working well, my RA pain is in my swollen hands but even more so in both ankles. I’d been on a 15 month Prednisone treatment and 6 months of Enbrel, neither helping me with the inflammation in my ankles. Now every 6 months I have two infusions of Rituximab in Boston. Those treatments have allowed me to walk again; my gait is a bit heavy and my mobility is about 80% back. Long walks and a day of shopping are things of the past. However, RA also is in my lungs (known as RA lung) but the Rituximab may stave off it getting worse. Couldn’t take Methotrexate because of RA in the lungs.

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