Since 1991, Montel Williams captivated TV audiences with his natural charisma on his eponymous talk show, The Montel Williams Show. But in 1999, the Emmy award-winning talk show host received some devastating news that would change his life forever: He was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS), a debilitating autoimmune disease of the central nervous system. Transforming tragedy into an opportunity to incite change, Montel established the Montel Williams MS Foundation in 2000, which raises money and awareness for MS research.
Almost 14 years later, the TV personality, talk show host and actor continues to thrive in spite of his day-to-day struggles with MS. Overcoming depression, chronic lower-body pain and other health challenges, Montel has found strategies for taming many of his most crippling MS symptoms. He shares this and other wellness wisdom on his new online television series, Living Well With Montel Williams, which streams every Tuesday at 1:00 PM EST on the show’s website.
Now, Montel finds himself facing another harrowing health crisis—only this time, it’s a loved one who will be fighting for their life. In a recent statement, Montel announced that his 24-year-old daughter, Maressa Williams, was diagnosed with lymphoma earlier this month. Below, the media celebrity reflects on his emotional journey with MS, discusses his new TV show, and opens up about his daughter’s diagnosis.
Spry Living: You’ve been living with MS for almost 14 years now. How are you doing today? What sort of symptoms do you struggle with, and how do you manage them?
Montel: Over the course of this illness, my most pervasive symptom has always been pain in my lower extremities. I’ve had some left-side weakness, and I’ve also had some night tremors and spasticity, but that kind of comes and goes. I have both multiple sclerosis and lateral sclerosis. Lateral sclerosis refers to scars in the spinal cord; multiple sclerosis refers to scars in the brain. So I have them in both places. It’s one of the scars in my spinal cord that’s probably causing the difficulty that I have in my feet and my shins. When I first was diagnosed, the pain in my lower extremities jumped up to about a 9 or 10 on a scale of 1 to 10. Sometimes the pain was off the charts; at one point, it was so difficult that I almost took my own life. But I moved forward and I’ve been working at this on a daily basis. I’m putting 24 hours into my illness every day. The work that I’ve done mitigating and trying to lessen inflammation, exercise, trying to stay on top of my medication. I’m seeing a physiatrist, I’m seeing physical therapists who are bone specialists to really capitalize on anything that could help me lessen my symptoms, thereby helping me live better. I take multiple courses of medication and I’m doing varied treatments. I’ve been able to gain control over this pain. Through this, I’ve been able to contain the pain; now, I don’t get a spike in pain above a 4 or 5.
Spry Living: It sounds like you’re really taking a mind/body/spirit approach to your treatment—just combining all these different aspects.
M: That’s exactly right. I’m on about five different regimens all at the same time. It’s important to approach treatment from all sides—mind, body, spirit. I think one of the biggest problems people run into when it comes to any sort of illness is that we don’t take the time to educate ourselves. You may look up one article and think, “Woe is me.” I’ve probably read 7,000 articles on MS; I’m not exaggerating. I’ve visited doctors around the world, trying my best to cull as much data and information as I can. I think that’s important for people to realize—that we’re individually responsible for our healthcare. We often delegate that responsibility over to some doctor, thinking that they’re closer to a god, and they’re not; if they were so smart, then none of us would be sick. So the truth of the matter is, in a lot of cases, the doctors are investigating and looking and researching. And you know what? If they can do it, so can I.
Spry Living: Since your diagnosis, you’ve struggled with some pretty severe depression and even suicidal thoughts. Can you tell me about this?
M: My depression started along with MS. I had a major episode of MS and that’s when depression—or what I thought at the time was depression—began. But that’s because I was misdiagnosed, you see. The doctors misdiagnosed my symptoms as being depression, but it wasn’t proper depression. What’s going on in me is something called emotional lability. Emotional lability is a form of depression, but it’s also more clinical because it’s based on physiology. I literally have scarring in my brain area, the area that controls our lability, our ability to control our highs and lows. This scarring was causing my inability to control my crying and anger. But I’ve been working on a couple of protocols over the course of the last three years that have really brought my emotions in check. So I would never identify myself as a person that suffers from depression, because I don’t believe that I ever had it. I think it was always this inability to stop the crying, this inability to stop the floodgates, which now I’ve taken some control over.
Spry Living: What strategies are you using to control your emotions?
M: One of the things is complete change of my diet. My diet is a complete 180 from most people on this planet. I also changed the way I exercise. Those two things alone started impacting inflammation in my body. I’ve done things like been overly anal about supplementation and also taking the medication that I’ve been prescribed by doctors. I’ve been on one medication now for 13 years every single day, and I rarely miss a dose.
Spry Living: You mentioned diet being a big factor for you, and that’s something that there’s been a lot of research on—the connection between diet and managing MS. What are some of the top foods that you try to incorporate into your diet?
M: You know, diet not only affects MS but also every chronic illness that we have. It affects everything from osteoarthritis to Type 2 diabetes to certain types of cancer (colon cancer and others to high blood pressure to heart disease. My diet regimen consists of trying to consume 70 percent of my calories from raw fruits and vegetables. And then I eat, or try to eat, only one cooked meal a day. I don’t have the baked potatoes and all that crap that goes along with food. So for me, it’s been more about what I put in, and what I put in are all valuable, useful calories, not wasted calories. I think I’m kind of cleansing my body, I’m still getting the vital nutrients and antioxidants and some vitamins and nutrients that most people on this planet would never put in their body. I consume the equivalent of about six pieces of fruit in two cups I drink every day.
Spry Living: Can you tell me about the premise of Living Well with Montel Williams and what inspired you to get involved with this project?
M: I was on air for about 17 years, and for the past 5 years I’ve had people stop me in the street, begging me to get back on the air. One of the things I wanted to do was to be able to provide information in the form by which the masses are receiving it. And right now, most people are getting their information from the Smartphone, tablets, their computers, and they use TV as backdrop noise. And so if I can be in the device that they are used to getting information from, they will probably choose to see me. Secondly, I wanted to make sure I could provide information on issues that people are interested in. And so I can get feedback from a community that says, “I need you to talk about and bring your Montel experts on Alzheimer’s,”or ADHD, or breast cancer, or sleep—basically, whatever condition or topic my respondents want to learn about.
Spry Living: I understand you recently appeared on Dr. Oz and were discussing a so-called ‘secret’ family crisis. Is this something that you can talk about with us?
M: My 24-year-old daughter, Maressa—who is a vivacious college student, you know, living the dream, having a great time in life—was diagnosed with lymphoma within the last month. She has already started a treatment regimen and will be undergoing fourto six months of chemotherapy, a pretty extensive program. But my daughter is a fighter. She called me about two and a half weeks ago and said, “Dad, I don’t want to go through with this by myself. If I can help other people, I’d love to do it, so is there any way that I can help with this?” So Maressa is going to start blogging for Dr. Oz and taking people on the journey with her. And I couldn’t be prouder of the fact that she is going to share what she is going through, that she’s raising awareness about this disease. This is one of the fastest-growing cancers among women in this demographic.
Spry Living: I’m sure she’s drawn a lot of strength from watching the way you handle your disease.
M: I think so, but she’s a strong girl. I’ve shared my journey with my children the entire time. I’ve tried to keep them aware of my challenges and limitations. It was important that my children understood my journey every step of the way, and they have been supportive. Maressa called me one day and said, “Dad, I do not want to be on the cover of some tabloid with somebody else telling the world what’s going on with me.” And I agree with her 100 percent and I’m just proud of her strength. We’re going to get through this. Fortunately, the type of cancer she has shows about a 90 percent cure rate. It’s going to be a tough journey, but she I know that she could conquer this disease and have a very flourishing, prosperous life.