2014’s Top 20 Celebrity Health Stories- Part 1

1. We all cry over the loss of a funny man


One of the biggest stories of the year was of the tragic death of actor/comedian Robin Williams in August. The Academy Award winner committed suicide by hanging in his Marin County home.

Despite his outwardly manic appearance, Williams fought the demons of depression for many years. Some speculated that he had “fallen off the wagon” from his past drug and alcohol addictions, but his final autopsy report confirmed that his sobriety had remained intact.

We did learn that Williams had been diagnosed with the early stages of Parkinson’s Disease, an illness for which he helped his friend (and Parkinson’s patient) Michael J. Fox raise money for research.

His autopsy also showed signs of Lewy Body Dementia, one of the most common types of progressive dementia.

2. America awakes up to the Ebola crisis when it hits American shores.


Although we had been hearing for months about the epidemic of the deadly Ebola virus in Western Africa, Americans didn’t seem to worry about it until two American health care workers, Dr. Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol, contracted the illness and were airlifted back to the United States. They were treated in a specially equipped hazmat unit at Emory Hospital in Atlanta, GA.

Both survived with the help of an experimental drug called ZMapp, which had not yet gone into human trials.

Liberian Thomas Eric Duncan was diagnosed with Ebola a week after arriving in Dallas, TX. Duncan had been seen 3 days earlier in the Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas emergency room and was sent home. He died 8 days later. Two nurses that had cared for Mr. Duncan went on to contract the disease, but were successfully treated.

In a separate incident, a cameraman working with NBC’s Dr. Nancy Synderman’s team covering Ebola in Liberia also contracted the disease.  He was successfully transferred to the US and treated.

Celebrities took to the Ebola cause, with Band-Aid creator Bob Geldof recording a new version of his 1984 song “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” to raise money to fight Ebola. Participants included One Direction, Sam Smith, Ed Sheeran, Emeli Sandé, Ellie Goulding, Rita Ora. Bastille, Chris Martin (Coldplay) and Bono (U2).


3. Leah Still wins the heart of the NFL and America

devon still

Cincinnati Bengals defensive tackle Devon Still used social media to proudly show the brave battle his 4 yr-old daughter Leah has been waging with a pediatric cancer named neuroblastoma.

Diagnosed with Stage 4 neuroblastoma on June 2, doctors gave her a 50-50 chance of survival.  But after 4 rounds of chemotherapy to shrink her tumors, Leah underwent successful surgery Sept. 25th at Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia to remove a tumor from her abdomen.

The Bengals have been very supportive of Devon and Leah, and vowed to donate money from the sales of Still’s No. 75 jersey, to benefit Children’s Hospital in Cincinnati. Leah was a guest of honor at their November 7th game, and received a check for the Children’s Hospital for 1.3 million dollars.

Leah also happened to be one of the children featured in a special video project called “Truly Brave,”  the brainchild of NBC News’ Hoda Kotb. Kotb wanted to highlight childhood cancer with the creation of special song for these children as well as to raise money for the American Cancer Society. This lead to an incredible collaboration between singer/songwriters Cyndi Lauper and Sara Bareilles. They blended their hit songs “True Colors” and “Brave” and filmed it with pediatric cancer patients at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

4. Shailene Woodley spouts her “Divergent” views on health


Shailene Woodley seemed to be one of 2014’s “It” girls. She had the lead in three major films which opened this year: Divergent , The Fault in Our Stars , and White Bird in a Blizzard.

An interview with the blog Into the Gloss had eyes rolling when Shailene shared some of her favorite health and beauty tips. Among them:

Eating clay:

“I’ve discovered that clay is great for you because your body doesn’t absorb it, and it apparently provides a negative charge, so it bonds to negative isotopes. And, this is crazy: it also helps clean heavy metals out of your body.”

Cleaning your teeth with oil

You can do something called ‘oil pulling’ where you swish coconut or sesame oil in your mouth when you wake up and spit it out. It’s amazing! It really makes your teeth whiter, because the plaque on your teeth is not water soluble, it’s fat-soluble.”

Giving your vagina a little Vitamin D

“I was reading an article written by an herbalist I studied about yeast infections and other genital issues. She said there’s nothing better than vitamin D. If you’re feeling depleted, go in the sun for an hour and see how much energy you get. Or, if you live in a place that has heavy winters, when the sun finally comes out, spread your legs and get some sunshine. [Laughs].”

Any truth to any of this? Check out the full article here.

5. MLB finally considers banning smokeless tobacco after the death of Tony Gwynn from Oral Cancer.


Baseball Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn lost a near 4 year battle with cancer of the salivary gland.  The San Diego Padres right fielder was very open about the fact that he blamed years of smokeless tobacco use as the cause of his cancer. Smokeless tobacco contains at least 28 chemicals that have been found to cause cancer. It can cause oral cancer, esophageal cancer, and pancreatic cancer.

Smokeless tobacco (ST) had become a common practice in MLB. A government study in 1999 showed that “Almost one third of rookie baseball players in the 1999 season were regular smokeless tobacco users on entering professional baseball.

But MLB did not make any rules regarding ST until 2011. The ruling, made in conjunction with the players union had players agreeing not to carry tobacco packages or tins in their back pockets while fans were in the ballpark. They also agree not to use ST during pre- or postgame interviews or at official team functions.

However, in light of Gwynn’s death, Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig wants to work with the players’ association to reduce and ultimately eliminate the use of smokeless tobacco in the game. That would be a home run!

6. CrossFit and Paleo become the “go to” celebrity workout and diet.



Six-pack abs are “in” big time, and they’re not just for men any more.

A number of celebrities, including Sin City’s  Jessica Alba, True Blood‘s Joe Manganiello and country superstar Tim McGraw, have credited their physical transformation to a combination of a low carb or paleo diet with a CrossFit exercise program.

The idea that eating like our stone age ancestors is healthier than modern diets was first proposed in 1985. The basic idea is that modern humans are fat and unhealthy because what we eat today is not what we were genetically programmed to eat before the invention of agriculture when prehistoric humans, using stone tools (“paleoliths”), hunted and gathered their food from wild sources.

The paleolithic-era foods allowed in the diet include muscle and organ meats, bone marrow, fish and shellfish, eggs,  fruits, roots, nuts and berries. Out are are milk products, grains (including whole grains), legumes (including peanuts), sugar, salt and processed foods.

CrossFit, Inc. is a fitness company founded by Greg Glassman and Lauren Jenai in 2000.  CrossFit workouts incorporate elements from high-intensity interval training, Olympic weightlifting, plyometrics (jump training), powerlifting, gymnastics, kettlebell lifting, calisthenics, strongman and other exercises. The workout consist of what is often described as “constantly varied functional movements performed at high intensity.”

A few small studies looked at the benefits of a cross-fit workout program. Participants did improve their aerobic fitness, decreased body fat and gained lean muscle. However, they also were found to have a relatively high injury rate.

The bottom line: Healthy and exercise are very important components of healthy living. But make sure that you are using well-trained, certified trainers when embarking on any exercise program. AND listen to your body- pain is the main way it tells you that something is wrong!

7. Miss Iowa sports her insulin pump in the Miss America pageant.


Miss Idaho Sierra Sandison had been diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes 2 years ago. She uses an insulin pump to control her blood sugar levels.

Sandison unexpectedly became a diabetes advocate when a picture of her wearing her insulin pump during the swimsuit portion of the Miss Idaho competition went viral.  She began to get messages of support and appreciation from all over the world. As she posted on Facebook:

“”I would never have dreamt of posting a swimsuit picture on social media but diabetics from all over the country have been asking to see me and my insulin pump…”

Although she didn’t win the Miss America crown, she did become the first Miss Idaho in 43 years to make the top 15 when she was selected America’s Choice – a finalist chosen by her fans through social media.

Sandison also runs a program (with her younger sister) called Possibilities for Disabilities. They put on sports camps for kids with developmental disabilities to help them gain confidence and find their identity through discovering their passions.

8. Hugh Jackman want you to wear sunscreen.

hugh jackman nose

He may play the invincible Wolverine on the big screen, but in real life, 45-year-old Hugh Jackman is subject to all the same, common maladies as the rest of us.

In November 2013, he took to Instagram to announce that he had a basal cell carcinoma, a form of skin cancer, removed from his nose. He had a second and third basal cell tumor removed in May and October 2014, respectively.

Each time he has gone on social media to spread the word that skin cancer is sun-related and that sunscreen is your best protection.

Basal cell carcinoma (BCC) is the most common form of skin cancer, affecting approximately one million Americans each year. In fact, it is the most common of all cancers. More than one out of every three new cancers are skin cancers, and the vast majority are basal cell carcinomas.

A person’s risk of skin cancer is related to lifetime exposure to UV radiation.  Basal cell skin cancer used to be more common in people over age 40, but is now often diagnosed in younger people, and the sun can damage the skin from an early age.

Tanner beware!

9. Philip Seymour Hoffman dies of drug overdose


On February 2, 2014, Academy Award winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, 46,  was found dead in his NYC apartment. The NYC Coroner’s Office ruled Hoffman’s death an accident caused by “acute mixed drug intoxication, including heroin, cocaine, benzodiazepines and amphetamine“.

Just 8 months before, Hoffman checked himself into a rehab facility to deal with prescription drugs abuse which had progressed to snorting heroin.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the first time Hoffman has dealt with a drug problem. In a 2006 interview with 60 Minute’s Steve Kroft, Hoffman revealed that he went to rehab when he was 22 years old, shortly after graduating from New York University.  He told Kroft that:

“It was all that [drugs and alcohol], yeah, it was anything I could get my hands on…I liked it all.”

At the time of his death, Hoffman was filming The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2, the final Hunger Games film, and had already completed the majority of his scenes. Although there was talk about using a digitally created Hoffman for the scenes he had not filmed, director Francis Lawrence refused to do so, and rewrote Hoffman’s remaining scenes to compensate for his absence.

10. Celebrity Diagnosis goes to college

rice with hats

This year, Celebrity Diagnosis was taught as part of a Media and Medicine course at Rice University. Professor Kirsten Ostherr had students review Celebrity Diagnosis stories and write comments which tied the story to the concepts they were learning in class.

The class generated over 70 comments on stories as diverse as Avicii’s bout of gallstones, to celebrity hawking of e-cigs, to the NBC News cameraman who contracted ebola. The story which got the most student comments was one about Jane the Virgin actress Gina Rodriguez’s diagnosis of Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. One student, Greta Shwachman, made an amazing video about her own diagnosis of Hashimoto’s. You can watch it in the post.

Overall it was an amazing collaboration, and the students seemed to like their Celebrity Diagnosis headwear to thank them for a job well done.

Not seen your favorite celebrity health story yet? Stayed tuned for Part 2 next week.

Michele R. Berman, M.D. was Clinical Director of The Pediatric Center, a private practice on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. from 1988-2000, and was named Outstanding Washington Physician by Washingtonian Magazine in 1999. She was a medical internet pioneer having established one of the first medical practice websites in 1997. Dr. Berman also authored a monthly column for Washington Parent Magazine.

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