2015’s Top Celebrity Health Stories: Part 1

1. Now everyone knows at least one transgender person.

caitlin jenner2

In April, Bruce Jenner, the former Olympian decathlete and patriarch of the Kardashian/Jenner clan, announced that he considers himself transgender and was now, at the age of 65, transitioning to live as a woman.

In June, the world was formerly introduced to Caitlin Jenner, seductively posed on the cover of Vanity Fair. The public response to Jenner’s transformation was overwhelmingly positive.  She received the ESPYs Arthur Ashe Courage Award, and in an emotional speech vowed “to do whatever I can to reshape the landscape of how transgender people are viewed and treated.”

Caitlin’s story became the perfect opportunity to clarify what are the difference between sex and gender, gender identity and sexual orientation:

“Sex” refers to the biological and physiological characteristics that define men and women.

“Gender” refers to the socially constructed roles, behaviors, activities, and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for men and women. In other words, “Male” and “female” are sex categories, while “masculine” and “feminine” are gender categories.

Gender identity is a person’s internal sense, and subjective experience, of their own gender. This is generally described as one’s own sense of being a boy or girl/ man or  woman.

“Sexual orientation” is the preferred term used when referring to an individual’s physical and/or emotional attraction to the same and/or opposite gender. “Gay,” “lesbian,” “bisexual” and “straight” are all examples of sexual orientations. A person’s sexual orientation is distinct from a person’s gender identity and expression.

Transgender individuals are people with a gender identity that is different from the sex assigned to them at birth.  Someone who was assigned the male sex at birth but who identifies as female is a transgender woman.  Likewise, a person assigned the female sex at birth but who identifies as male is a transgender man. Being transgender does not imply a specific sexual orientation- transgender individuals can have homosexual or heterosexual or bisexual orientations.

2. Charlie Sheen is winning a battle with HIV.

charlie sheen on Today

In November, Matt Lauer interviewed Charlie Sheen on the Today show:

“I’m here to admit that I am, in fact, HIV positive.

I have to put a stop to this onslaught, this barrage of attacks and of sub-truths and very harmful and mercurial stories that are about me, threatening the health of so many others that couldn’t be further from the truth.”

From the interview we learn that Sheen was diagnosed with HIV about 4 years ago, when he sought medical attention after suffering a series of “crushing headaches.” Sheen was concerned that he might have a brain tumor. Since his diagnosis, he has been on antiretroviral medications (4 pills/day)and has “not missed a day” of treatment.

Sheen said that he was coming forth now because he had been “shaken down” by people he trusted who have been extorting him for money to keep his HIV status private. He also claims that he has notified all sexual contacts, including his ex-wives, that he is HIV+.

During the interview, his physician, Dr. Robert Huizenga, reiterated that Charlie is healthy and that the HIV virus is undetectable in his blood at the present time. He also pointed out that although the ability of Sheen to transmit the virus to a sexual partner is not zero, with protection, it is “incredibly rare.” Dr. Huizenga admitted that his greater fear is that Charlie’s past struggles with substance abuse and depression will have a greater impact on his health than his HIV status.

3. Is “Waist Training” a Harmful Waste of Time?

What is the latest Hollywood fad designed to give you that “hourglass shape”?

It’s called waist training, and it is reportedly the obsession of celebrities such as Kim Kardashian and her sister Khloe, Jessica Alba and Brooke Burke-Charvet.

corsetcomp1Waist training involves wearing a tight fitting corset, initially for a few hours a day, and increasing the time worn to up to 18 hours a day! Proponents claim that this will lead to a permanent degree in the waistline.

Does it work? To some extent, yes, you may indeed have a decrease in waistline using waist training. HOWEVER-unless dietary, exercise or surgical intervention is combined with waist training, the effect will disappear once the corset is discontinued.

In addition, physicians have pointed out for many years that constricting the abdomen and torso could impair lung function. Compression of the abdomen also compresses the lower ribs and abdominal organs, including the liver, spleen, kidneys and intestines. Compression of the stomach can lead to gastric reflux, with stomach acid being pushed into the esophagus.

The bottom line: Using a corset to “look your best” for a special occasion is fine, but long term use brings, at best, temporary results, and could potentially be harmful.

4. The List of Celebrities with Lyme Disease Grew.


2015 seemed to be the year that everyone was talking about their Lyme Disease.

In April, Canadian singer Avril Lavigne revealed that she had been diagnosed with Lyme Disease. She said that the illness left her bedridden for nearly 5 months. At times, she was even unable to talk!

YolandaFosterRHONJ Yolanda Foster told fans that she has been battling Lyme Disease for the past 3 years. What’s more, Foster says that she has neuroborreliosis, a form of Lyme Disease where the brain itself has been infected with the spirochete that causes the disease. The illness has left her unable “to read, write, or even watch TV, because I can’t process information.” Some members of the RHONJ cast seemed to doubt that Yolanda even had the disease, but it definitely had a deleterious effect on her marriage to music mogul David Foster from whom she recently became divorced.

It was also speculated that Full House alum, turned fashion mogul Ashley Olsen had also been diagnosed with Lyme Disease.

Lyme disease is an illness caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi. It is spread through the bite of infected ticks. It typically begins with a reed, expanding rash called erythema migrans (EM). This may be accompanied by fatigue, chills, fever, headache, muscle and joint aches, and swollen lymph nodes.

In a second stage, facial or Bell’s palsy  (muscle weakness on one or both sides of the face may occur, as well as severe headaches and neck stiffness due to meningitis (inflammation of the spinal cord) and/or pain and swelling in the large joints (such as knees).

Approximately 60% of patients with untreated infection may begin to have intermittent bouts of arthritis, with severe joint pain and swelling. In addition, about 10-20% of patients with Lyme disease have symptoms that last months to years after treatment with antibiotics. These symptoms can include muscle and joint pains, cognitive defects, sleep disturbance, or fatigue. This condition is referred to as Post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome (PTLDS). There is some evidence that PTLDS is caused by an autoimmune response, in which a person’s immune system continues to respond, doing damage to the body’s tissues, even after the infection has been cleared.

5. Rita Wilson diagnosed with breast cancer and stresses the importance of a second opinion.

WEST HOLLYWOOD, CA - MAY 08: Actress Rita Wilson attends the 'Fed Up' premiere held at the Pacfic Design Center on May 8, 2014 in West Hollywood, California. (Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images)

In April, actress (and wife of Tom Hanks) Rita Wilson announced that she underwent a bilateral mastectomy with reconstructive surgery to treat breast cancer.

Doctors have been following her for “an underlying condition of LCIS (lobular carcinoma in situ), which has been vigilantly monitored through yearly mammograms and breast MRIs. Recently, after two surgical breast biopsies, PCIS (pleomorphic carcinoma in situ) was discovered.” But Wilson was not convinced and decided to go for a second opinion:

“A different pathologist found invasive lobular carcinoma. His diagnosis of cancer was confirmed by, yet, another pathologist. I share this to educate others that a second opinion is critical to your health. You have nothing to lose if both opinions match up for the good, and everything to gain if something that was missed is found, which does happen. Early diagnosis is key.”

breast2Lobular carcinoma in situ (LCIS) is diagnosed when abnormal cells grow inside the lobules of the breast, but have not spread to nearby tissue or beyond.  LCIS is not considered invasive breast cancer as it tends to remain in place (in situ). However, those diagnosed with LCIS are at a higher risk of developing breast cancer. Women with LCIS are considered eight to 10 times more likely to develop invasive cancer which can occur as either invasive lobular or ductal carcinoma.


6. Dementia, not depression, was the major factor in Robin Williams’ death.

HOLLYWOOD - NOVEMBER 09: Susan Schneider and Robin Williams arrive at the "Old Dogs" Premiere at the El Capitan Theatre on November 9, 2009 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by John Shearer/WireImage)

Susan Williams, widow of comic icon Robin Williams, told People magazine that it was Lewy Body Dementia, and not depression, that most likely lead to Robin’s suicide. Susan recounted an episode when she found her husband in the bathroom with a bloody head he had hit on the door. He called it a “miscalculation,” and seemed baffled by it. Shortly afterwards, they saw a psychiatrist who felt that his condition had deteriorated so much that it was time to consider inpatient treatment.

dementia-300x195Dementia with Lewy bodies (DLB) is one of the most common types of progressive dementia.

According to the Lewy Body Dementia Association,  DLB affects an estimated 1.3 million individuals and their families in the United States.

The main feature of DLB is a progressive decline in cognitive functioning. Cognition is a group of mental processes that includes attention, memory, producing and understanding language, solving problems, and making decisions.

A patient must also have three additional defining features:

(1) Pronounced “fluctuations” in alertness and attention, such as frequent drowsiness, lethargy, lengthy periods of time spent staring into space, or disorganized speech

(2) Recurrent visual hallucinations

(3) Parkinsonian motor symptoms, such as rigidity and the loss of spontaneous movement.

People with DLB may also suffer from depression.

7. Gwyneth Paltrow felt the heat.


2015 was a year in which Gwyneth Paltrow felt the heat- both literally and figuratively!

In January, on her online blog GOOP, Gwyneth touted the benefits of the vaginal steam at the holistic Tikkun Spa in Santa Monica, CA:

“the real golden ticket here is the Mugworth V-Steam: You sit on what is essentially a mini-throne, and a combination of infrared and mugwort steam cleanses your uterus, et al. It is an energetic release—not just a steam douche—that balances female hormone levels. If you’re in LA, you have to do it.”

However physicians cautioned that V-steaming could cause burns to the vaginal area as well as “making you more susceptible to the growth of yeast and unfriendly bacteria.” Gynecologist, Dr. Jen Gunter, pointed out that “unless that steam is under high pressure (like with ejaculation) it’s not getting from the vagina into the uterus.” And Dr. Russell Sanders said that:

“The female reproductive tract does not need to be cleaned at all.Women should no more steam their vaginas than flush them with Lysol.”

In October, Gwyneth came under fire again, when she posted an article by Dr. Habib Sadeghi, entitled “Could There Possibly Be a Link Between Underwire Bras and Breast Cancer??

The medical community was quick to discredit this information (which  BTW was never published in a peer-reviewed  journal). The American Cancer Society says that “there are no scientifically valid studies that show wearing bras of any type causes breast cancer.” There  are many much more important factors involved in causing breast cancer. Dr. Jen Gunter added:

“Breast cancer is a complex condition that involves genetics and a variety of risk factors, the most common ones being obesity, dense breasts, alcohol consumption, if and when (age) a woman gives birth, taking estrogen, and a history of radiation exposure.”

8. The sports world mourned the loss of ESPN’s Stuart Scott


Longtime ESPN anchor Stuart Scott, 49, died in January after a long battle with cancer of the appendix. Known for his enthusiastic style, Scott also coined a bevy of catchphrases including his signature “Boo-Yah!” and “As cool as the other side of the pillow.”

Scott was first diagnosed in 2007, when cancerous cells were discovered in his appendix, after its removal during an emergency appendectomy. He underwent surgery and chemotherapy and went into remission. The cancer came back in 2011 and again in 2013. Despite this, he continued to work at ESPN and to work-out, “using mixed martial arts and high-intensity cross-training workouts to restore the energy that chemotherapy saps from him.”

In July, Scott was given the Jimmy V Perseverance Award at the ESPN Awards for his courageous fight against cancer. In that speech he said:


Cancer of the appendix is a rare form of cancer, seen in less than 1000 Americans each year. The cause of appendix cancer is unknown, and no avoidable risk factors have been identified.

Approximately two-thirds of all appendix tumors are carcinoid tumors. A carcinoid tumor starts in the hormone-producing cells that are normally present in small amounts in almost every organ in the body. A carcinoid tumor in the appendix most often occurs at its tip.

Mucinous cystadenocarcinoma is the most common non-carcinoid appendix tumor and is seen in about 20% of appendix cancer cases. This type of tumor produces a jelly-like substance called mucin that can fill the abdominal cavity and can cause abdominal pain, bloating, and changes in bowel function if the tumor breaks through the appendix or grows in the abdomen.

Many cases of cancer of the appendix remain asymptomatic until they are discovered when a person has surgery for another condition. Almost half are found during surgery for appendicitis. Sometimes they are discovered as part of an abdominal mass found on a CT scan or MRI done for an unrelated condition.

9. The “Happiest Place on Earth” gave people the measles.


Did the “Happiest Place on Earth” become the most contagious?

The Centers for Disease Control reported a multi-state outbreak of measles associated with travel to Disneyland Resort Theme Parks. From January 1 to December 11, 2015, 113 people from 24 states and the District of Columbia were reported to have measles linked their visit to Disneyland.

Measles is a highly contagious respiratory disease caused by a virus. It spreads through the air through coughing and sneezing. Measles starts with a fever, runny nose, cough, red eyes, and sore throat, and is followed by a rash that spreads all over the body. About three out of 10 people who get measles will develop one or more complications including pneumonia, ear infections, or diarrhea.

Measles typically begins with

koplik spotsTwo or three days after symptoms begin, tiny white spots (Koplik spots) may appear inside the mouth.

measles rashThree to five days after symptoms begin, a rash breaks out. It usually begins as flat red spots that appear on the face at the hairline and spread downward to the neck, trunk, arms, legs, and feet. Small raised bumps may also appear on top of the flat red spots. The spots may become joined together as they spread from the head to the rest of the body. When the rash appears, a person’s fever may spike to more than 104° Fahrenheit.

After a few days, the fever subsides and the rash fades.

Measles was declared eliminated in the United States in 2000, because of high population immunity achieved by high 2-dose measles vaccine coverage and a highly effective measles vaccine. However, measles is still endemic in many parts of the world, and outbreaks can occur in the U.S. when unvaccinated groups are exposed to imported measles virus.

Of those who contracted measles after a visit to Disneyland, 28 (55%) were unvaccinated, 17 (31%) had unknown vaccination status, and 6 (12%) were vaccinated. Of the 6 cases vaccinated, 2 had received 1 dose and 4 had received 2 or more doses. Among the 28 unvaccinated cases, 5 were under age for vaccination. Eight patients required hospitalization.

10. Two DWTS contestants withdrew with serious medical problems.








We’ve become used to Dancing with the Stars contestants getting injured during their stint on the show. But this season, two contestants Kim Zolciak-Biermann and Tamar Braxton left because of serious medical problems.

Zolciak-Biermann, a former Real Housewife of Atlanta,  had just arrived at her Roswell, Georgia home when she began to have symptoms of a mini-stroke:

The last 24hrs have been whirlwind! I landed yesterday morning from LAX (took the red eye right after DWTS) I got home and within minutes suffered a TIA (mini stroke) the left side of my body went completely numb and my speech was gone.”

A transient ischemic attack (TIA) is a transient stroke that lasts only a few minutes. It occurs when the blood supply to part of the brain is briefly interrupted. TIA symptoms, which usually occur suddenly, are similar to those of stroke but do not last as long.

An evaluation to figure out way Kim may have had the TIA revealed that she has a small “hole in her heart,” known as a patent foramen ovale, or PFO. She underwent surgery to repair it in October.

The foramen ovale is a small opening between the upper chambers of the heart (the right and left atria) which allows a  neonate’s circulatory system to  shunt blood away from the lungs until birth when the baby takes its first breath. This opening functionally closes within the first couple of days of life, and then is permanently sealed over the first one to two years of age. However, in approximately one in four people, the opening does not permanently seal closed.

There are usually no complications associated with a PFO. There have been some studies suggesting that older patients with PFOs have a higher rate of a certain type of stroke. The reason for this is that older people frequently develop blood clots in the veins in their legs. These clots can sometimes travel from their original site to the right side of their heart.

If a PFO is present, the clot can then pass from the right side to the left side and may travel to the brain and become lodged there, preventing blood flow to that part of the brain (stroke).

In November, contestant Tamar Braxton, was hospitalized with was initially diagnosed as pneumonia. Although she managed to make it back to the live show in time to dance a team dance, she was immediately rehospitalized after the show. This time, the doctors said that Tamar was suffering from something potentially much more serious: pulmonary embolisms (blood clots in her lungs), and she must leave the show, as well as cancel a number of concert dates.

A pulmonary embolism, or PE, is a sudden blockage in a lung artery. The blockage usually is due to a blood clot that traveled to the lung from a vein in the leg. A clot that forms in one part of the body and travels in the bloodstream to another part of the body is called an embolus.

PE is a serious condition that can cause:

  • Permanent damage to part of the lung from lack of blood flow to lung tissue
  • Low oxygen levels in the blood
  • Damage to other organs in the body from not getting enough oxygen

If a blood clot is large, or if there are many clots, PE can cause death.

Haven’t seen your favorite 2015 celebrity health story yet? Stay tuned, more to come…

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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