This fall, television viewers across the United States and Canada are welcoming Michael J. Fox back into their living rooms every Thursday night. The debut of “The Michael J. Fox Show” is remarkable not only for bringing Michael back to a starring role on network television (something no one would have anticipated when he retired from “Spin City” due to his progressing Parkinson’s disease). It has also placed Parkinson’s squarely back in the national conversation — a conversation already transformed by The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research (MJFF), which Michael launched in 2000 with the exclusive goal of funding research to speed a cure for the second most common brain disease worldwide.
“What I had in mind was an organization built for speed, eschewing bureaucracy and taking an entrepreneurial approach toward helping researchers find a cure for Parkinson’s,” Michael says. “There was no existing blueprint for accomplishing what we wanted to do. We were faced with the challenge of inventing a new system.”
The Foundation grew quickly from startup to the world’s largest nonprofit funder of Parkinson’s research, and has made grants totaling more than $375 million to research teams all over the world (about 30 percent of funds go to international investigators). The New York Times has called MJFF “the most credible voice on Parkinson’s research in the world.”
As Michael sees it, his decisions to start the Foundation and to return to full-time acting now are united by a common theme. “It’s funny… people ask me about returning to NBC this fall the same way they asked me about launching a research foundation 13 years ago,” he says. “Whether it’s meant being the founder of MJFF or an actor with Parkinson’s, I guess I just realized: Why can’t I?”
“Just a dad with three kids”
Now Parkinson’s families, along with the greater TV audience, are tuning in to Michael’s show with compassion, interest and (of course) good humor. And in addition to laughing at the trials and tribulations of newsman Mike Henry, many are also seeing themselves in Michael’s alter ego.
The show deals with Parkinson’s mostly through a kind of benign negligence. Michael has been careful to say that the show isn’t really about Parkinson’s, and the script treats its main character, a guy with Parkinson’s disease, like — well — a guy.
“I’ve been told it’s really audacious to do a show about someone living with Parkinson’s, and not make a big deal of it,” Michael says. “Not playing soft piano music underneath it and slow motion… just a dad with three kids, living in New York and trying to get back to his old craft.”
The status quo is still not good enough
But as our CEO, Todd Sherer, wrote in a Scientific American op-ed published the week of “The Michael J. Fox Show” premiere, for Michael and the millions living with Parkinson’s, the disease is far from benign and the status quo is not good enough. “Medication and therapies alleviate some symptoms, but create their own problems and fail to address all the effects of Parkinson’s. And for every patient, a community is affected, as the impact of the disease ripples to loved ones and caregivers.”
The Foundation continues to push hard toward its mission of finding the cure in our lifetime. Since inception, the Foundation has transformed Parkinson’s research by applying significant resources, tenacious problem-solving, and unwavering urgency to the pursuit of a cure. And it is working. Today, more Parkinson’s drugs are in development than ever before. Multiple methods to improve the delivery of levodopa (the current gold-standard treatment for Parkinson’s) are in late-stage testing, and new treatments in development show promise to alleviate the side effects it brings. More attention is being paid to the nonmotor symptoms of the disease, such as mood and sleep disorders and cognitive impairment. And findings mainly from Parkinson’s genetics studies have opened entirely new avenues to treatments that could slow, stop or even prevent disease progression, something no currently available treatment can do.
think/able and the power of optimism
The question we’ve heard most often this year at The Michael J. Fox Foundation is: After more than 20 years with Parkinson’s, how is Michael doing well enough to go back to work? There’s no simple answer. He acknowledges the good fortune he has in a loving, supportive family and financial independence, which have provided advantages in dealing with his disease.
One thing is clear: Michael is worldfamous for looking at even his greatest challenges through a lens of optimism and humor. In a recent interview with Rolling Stone magazine, he said, “People said, ‘Are you sure you can take it on? Are you sure you can deal with it?’ And I said, ‘No, I’m not sure I can, but I want to and I have an opportunity to.’ ”
The power of that brand of optimism shouldn’t be underestimated. An ever-growing body of research links a great attitude to better long-term health outcomes. (A 2010 study published in the American Heart Association’s journal Circulation showed that optimists and those with a sunnier outlook on life were 14 percent less likely to die from any cause than their more pessimistic counterparts.) Taking an optimistic view also often goes hand-in-hand with feeling empowered to shape your own destiny.
In fact, the Foundation has launched its new think/able project in celebration of the optimism that led Michael both to launch our Foundation in 2000 and return to full-time acting 13 years later — optimism shared by the Foundation as it continues its hunt for a cure. The think/able community, aligned around the common goal of curing Parkinson’s disease in our lifetime, believes that “our challenges don’t define us — our actions do” and celebrates the everyday optimism and proactivity that help us all be more “like Mike.” We want you to be part of it — visit michaeljfox.org/thinkable to learn more and get involved.
After all, as MJFF Co-Founder Debi Brooks noted in a recent post for The Daily Beast: “Each day brings new hope, and we will keep at this until Parkinson’s is a thing of the past. Until then, we’re on a mission to make sure patients and those who care about them know that every one of us has what it takes to be part of the solution. So join us — the more involved we get, the better we are likely to feel. And the better we feel, the healthier we’re likely to be.”
“The Michael J. Fox Show” airs Thursday nights at 9:30 p.m. on NBC.