How a Grey’s Anatomy Doctor Survived a Brain Tumor in Real Life
As a former TV doctor on the medical drama Grey’s Anatomy, Kate Walsh didn’t expect to face her own serious health scare. Here, she explains what she learned about the life she needs to be leading.
Courtesy CignaIt’s one thing to play a doctor on TV. It’s another to become a patient in real life. That’s exactly what happened to actress Kate Walsh, who played Dr. Addison Montgomery on the ABC dramas Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice, two of the most addictive hospital shows on Netflix. She began noticing subtle changes in her balance and coordination along with extreme fatigue in early 2015.
“I knew something was wrong,” says Walsh, who has partnered with Cigna alongside America’s favorite TV doctors (Neil Patrick Harris, Patrick Dempsey and Donald Faison) in an ad campaign aimed at encouraging people to get their annual check-ups. “I had just finished a big show working crazy hours, 70 to 80 hours a week, so it wasn’t uncommon for me to be totally wiped out.”
But this fatigue was beyond anything Walsh had ever experienced. (If you feel tired all the time, these medical conditions could be the reason behind it.)
“I’d drink five cups of coffee and still feel lethargic,” she says. “So I changed my workout routine and did more gentle exercise like Pilates and walking my dog, but my balance was off—the right side of my body was weaker.”
By May of that year Walsh began noticing that, while driving, she’d veer to the right and she was getting forgetful.
“I would lose my train of thought and that wasn’t like me,” she recalls. “I’m very articulate and verbal—I was an English major—and I like chatting, so for me to have this problem concerned me.”
She made an appointment with a neurologist in Los Angeles who, in June, ordered an MRI.
“I was scared and thought maybe this was some sort of Walsh family sickness that none of us knew about,” she says. “As a former TV doctor, I thought maybe it was degeneration of the brain or early onset Alzheimer’s.” (These are the early signs of Alzheimer’s to watch for.)
The words “brain tumor” were never in her thoughts—until her radiologist explained the results of the MRI.
“Usually they send the MRI screens to your neurologist but the radiologist wanted to see me right away, so I knew there was an issue,” she says. “She said it looked to be a sizable brain tumor and that’s when I practically left my body. I didn’t expect her to say that.”
Three days later, she had emergency brain surgery that revealed she had a benign meningioma tumor on the left lobe of her brain that was over five centimeters, the size of a small lemon. Thankfully, the medical team was able to remove the tumor in its entirety.
All the while she was determined to keep this private.
“I wanted my own experience of recovery and made a conscious decision not to talk about it,” Walsh says.
Walsh spent the summer of 2015 in recovery. But now she’s now committed to helping others be proactive about their health.
“With this campaign, the idea is that you shouldn’t wait until you have a health problem,” she says. “If you feel off, trust your instincts. As an actor, my body and voice are my instruments and I’m in touch with how I feel. One big message of this ad campaign is to think about preventive care before you have a health issue.”
Walsh admits that she was never one to get a routine annual physical. “I would go to my gynecologist every year and that was it,” she says. “This campaign emphasizes how important it is to find a great doctor. They’re here to help us, and we want people to understand that most insurance covers an annual physical.” Check out the signs you’re healthy from every type of doctor.
The summer of 2015 taught Walsh other life lessons, like learning to slow down, spend more time with family and friends, and not rush her recovery. She also made it a goal to think thoroughly about future projects. “I looked closely at what I wanted to work on and what I was interested in doing,” she says. “I have the luxury of a little bit of choice in that area, but I thought it was a gift to wait and work when I wanted to go back to work.”
Since that summer, Walsh has returned to working hard and feeling like her old self—but with one exception: “Since the tumor, I’ve developed a heightened sense of hearing and smell,” she says. “Otherwise I’m doing great!”