Celebs Who Secretly Dealt With Big Medical Issues

Living with a deadly disease or chronic illness is hard on anyone, but unless you're a celebrity, you don't usually have the benefit of making that struggle public knowledge. Many celebrities over the years have announced their conditions to the public in order to bring awareness to their disease and to raise money to fight it. Rapper Lil Wayne has epilepsy. Tennis star Venus Williams has endured a long battle with the autoimmune disease, Sjögren's syndrome. Reality television star Jack Osbourne was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

Singer Nick Jonas was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at the age of 13 and went on to help create Beyond Type 1, a non-profit organization to help those living with the disease. "I felt pretty isolated initially," he said in 2018. "One of the reasons I was so drawn to being a part of Beyond Type 1 was really to find ways we could build up the community and be a support to those who maybe felt the way I felt when I was diagnosed, which was very alone."

However, there are just as many stars who choose to live with their conditions privately on their own terms. Here are a few celebrities who secretly dealt with big medical issues.

Selena Gomez had a secret kidney transplant

In 2016, singer and actress Selena Gomez announced that she would be taking a step back from the public eye to deal with issues pertaining to her Lupus diagnosis. "I've discovered that anxiety, panic attacks and depression can be side effects of Lupus, which can present their own challenges," she said in a statement to CNN. "I want to be proactive and focus on maintaining my health and happiness and have decided that the best way forward is to take some time off."

Over a year later, the "Same Old Love" singer shocked fans and the media by posting a photo on Instagram of her and fellow actress, Francia Raisa, holding hands across their hospital beds. "I'm very aware some of my fans had noticed I was laying low for part of the summer and questioning why I wasn't promoting my new music, which I was extremely proud of," Gomez wrote in the caption. "So I found out I needed to get a kidney transplant due to my Lupus and was recovering."

"There aren't words to describe how I can possibly thank my beautiful friend Francia Raisa. She gave me the ultimate gift and sacrifice by donating her kidney to me. I am incredibly blessed," Gomez continued. Find you a friend who will give you a kidney.

David Bowie had a private battle with liver cancer

On Jan. 10, 2016, two days after his 69th birthday and the release of this final album, Blackstar, rock icon David Bowie passed away after a nearly two-year battle with liver cancer that he didn't make public. "David Bowie died peacefully today surrounded by his family after a courageous 18-month battle with cancer," Bowie's son, film director Duncan Jones, wrote on Facebook (via Reuters).

Even some of the legend's closest friends and collaborators didn't know Bowie was sick. "David's death came as a complete surprise, as did nearly everything else about him. I feel a huge gap now," producer Brian Eno said (via the Independent). "I received an email from him seven days ago. It was as funny as always, and as surreal, looping through word games and allusions and all the usual stuff we did."

The "Space Oddity" singer was secretly cremated without any friends or family members present per his final wishes, because he reportedly wanted "to go without any fuss," according to a source cited by the Mirror. The insider added, "In many respects you don't need a memorial or service to remember David by ... you have his music instead. He would have wanted to just disappear with no fuss, no big show, no fanfare. This would totally be his style."

Avril Lavigne was bedridden with Lyme disease before going public

Avril Lavigne's struggles with Lyme disease are well known. But during an exclusive interview with People in 2015, the Canadian rocker revealed that she was "bedridden for five months" while she kept her diagnosis a secret. The disease, which she contracted by a bug bite, was so bad at the time that her mother moved in to care for her.

"I could barely eat ... I felt like I couldn't breathe, I couldn't talk and I couldn't move. I thought I was dying," Lavigne said. "There were definitely times I couldn't shower for a full week because I could barely stand. It felt like having all your life sucked out of you." She noted that since she was "MIA," a fan reached out to her via Twitter, she responded that she "wasn't feeling good," and her response quickly went viral.

Four years later, Lavigne reflected on her health scare and revealed she was actually bedridden for two years. "When you go through something like that, you realize how fulfilling simple things are — things I could do anymore, like being able to get up in the morning and go to the kitchen and grab a cup of coffee," the "Keep Holding On" hitmaker told People. "It taught me patience; it taught me being more present. That was a beautiful lesson."

Jackie Collins hid her breast cancer diagnosis for almost seven years

On Sept. 19, 2015, best-selling romance novelist Jackie Collins passed away from breast cancer at the age of 77. During an interview with People five days before her death, Collins revealed publicly — for the first time — that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer almost seven years prior and didn't tell anyone except her three daughters.

"I did it my way, as Frank Sinatra would say," Collins said in what would be her final interview. "I've written five books since the diagnosis, I've lived my life, I've travelled all over the world, I have not turned down book tours and no one has ever known until now when I feel as though I should come out with it." She added, "Now I want to save other people's lives."

So, why didn't Collins tell anyone? "Because I didn't want to be on the front of the Enquirer with 'two weeks to live.' And I didn't want people's sympathy," she told People. "I think sympathy can weaken you. I don't live my life that way." Collins noted that she only told her famous sister, actress Joan Collins, months prior to her death, because she didn't want to "burden" her. "I just felt she didn't need it in her life," the Chances writer explained (via People). "She's very positive and very social but I'm not sure how strong she is, so I didn't want to burden her with it."

Cobie Smulders kept her ovarian cancer a secret for five years

Actress Cobie Smulders, best known for her time on How I Met Your Mother and her recurring role as Maria Hill in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, publicly revealed that she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer five years prior during a 2015 interview with Women's Health. The diagnosis came when she was just 25, during the third season of the wildly popular sitcom.

"I had tumors on both ovaries and the cancer had spread into my lymph nodes and surrounding tissues," Smulders explained, revealing that she required multiple surgeries and treatments. "I don't think I'll ever feel like I'm cancer-free. Now that I'm five years out, I'm trying to think of it as a positive thing and what can I learn from it. And if I can create more awareness, I'll do it."

During an interview with USA Today in 2019, Smulders admitted to seeing her bout with cancer as a blessing. "I think that going through (cancer) has made me a better person, a better mother, certainly able to tap into things in terms of creating characters," Smulders said. "But I think the general overall gift, if cancer can give you a gift, is being grateful for being here. And being able to have gone through something like that, ... when other things bubble up that are trying, you go, 'Well, it wasn't that. I'm not in that hospital anymore.' So, I am now in a grateful place with it."

Gene Wilder 'couldn't bear the idea of one less smile in the world'

On Aug. 29, 2016, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory and Young Frankenstein star Gene Wilder passed away at his home at the age of 83. His family revealed the comedic legend died of a disease he kept hidden from the public for three years. "The cause was complications from Alzheimer's disease with which he co-existed for the last three years. The choice to keep this private was his choice, in talking with us and making a decision as a family," their statement read (via Us Weekly).

The Blazing Saddles star had remained out of the public eye for more than a decade prior to his death, so his passing came as shocking news. However, the family's decision to keep his illness private was out of love for his millions of adoring fans. "The decision to wait until this time to disclose his condition wasn't vanity," the statement continued, "but more so that the countless young children that would smile or call out to him 'there's Willy Wonka,' would not have to be then exposed to an adult referencing illness or trouble and causing delight to travel to worry, disappointment or confusion. He simply couldn't bear the idea of one less smile in the world."

Although Wilder suffered from a degenerative brain disease, his family states it "never stole his ability to recognize those that were closest to him" nor took his "central-gentle-life affirming core personality."

Emilia Clarke suffered two brain aneurysms while filming Game of Thrones

In a March 2019 op-ed published in The New Yorker, Emilia Clarke revealed that she suffered two brain aneurysms during the first two seasons of Game of Thrones. To relieve the stress that came with her newfound international fame, Clarke said that she started working out with a trainer — and that's when she knew there was a problem. "I immediately felt as though an elastic band were squeezing my brain," she wrote. "I tried to ignore the pain and push through it, but I just couldn't. I told my trainer I had to take a break. Somehow, almost crawling, I made it to the locker room. At some level, I knew what was happening: my brain was damaged."

Clarke had successful surgery, but she woke up not being able to remember her own name when the nurse asked. "Instead, nonsense words tumbled out of my mouth and I went into a blind panic," she continued. "I'd never experienced fear like that — a sense of doom closing in. I could see my life ahead, and it wasn't worth living. I am an actor; I need to remember my lines. Now I couldn't recall my name."

A brain scan in 2013 showed that a smaller aneurysm they found had "doubled in size." Clarke explained that "all hope receded" after experiencing this twice, writing, "I felt like a shell of myself."

Charlie Sheen paid to keep his HIV diagnosis a secret

In November 2015, actor Charlie Sheen revealed he had been living with HIV for four years. The Platoon star wrote an open letter published by Today, where he discussed his diagnosis and described it as a "mule kick" to his soul. "I absorbed and then tried to convince myself, that I was stuck, suspended, or even stranded inside some kind of alternate reality or nightmare, were to the absolute contrary," he wrote. "I was awake. It was true ... reality."

Sheen stated that he was hospitalized after suffering a "seismic and debilitating three-day cluster-migraine-like headache," and believed that he had a brain tumor. But after a series of tests, the actor learned his true diagnosis. "I accept this condition not as a curse or scourge, but rather as an opportunity and a challenge," Sheen continued. "An opportunity to help others. A challenge to better myself."

During an exclusive interview with Today on the date of his open letter, the Two and Half Men star said that HIV was "a hard three letters to absorb," adding, "It's a turning point in one's life." Sheen claimed he paid around $10 million to keep his diagnosis hidden from the public, but he felt those people had betrayed him. "I trusted them and they were deep in my inner circle, and I thought they could be helpful. My trust turned to their treason," he added, admitting that his decision to come forward was to stop future "shakedowns."

Michael J. Fox didn't share his Parkinson's diagnosis for seven years

At the age of 29, beloved actor Michael J. Fox was diagnosed with young-onset Parkinson's disease in 1991. The Back to the Future star didn't come forward publicly with his diagnosis until 1998. He retired from his highly-successful sitcom, Spin City, in 2000 and launched The Michael J. Fox Foundation later the same year to help fund Parkinson's research.

Fox kept acting (and racking up Emmy nominations and wins) while struggling with his condition, with runs on Boston Legal, Rescue Me, The Good Wife, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Designated Survivor, and The Michael J. Fox Show. However, in a 2020 interview with The Guardian, the Family Ties alum revealed that he took a step back from performing in 2018. "If something changes, great, or maybe I can figure out how to do it a different way," Fox said.

After living with Parkinson's for nearly 30 years, Fox discussed how he is doing these days. "It's like my walking. I used to walk fast, but every step is now like a frigging math problem, so I take it slow," he said. "And with acting, I used to race to the punchline. But I started to really pay attention because I couldn't just skate over any moment."

Chadwick Boseman kept his colon cancer diagnosis a secret until his death

Perhaps the most shocking celebrity death of 2020 was the passing of Black Panther star Chadwick Boseman of colon cancer at the age of 43. Diagnosed with Stage 3 colon cancer in 2016, Boseman continued to work relentlessly without disclosing his condition until he succumbed to Stage 4 at his home on Aug. 28, 2020. "A true fighter, Chadwick persevered through it all, and brought you many of the films you have come to love so much," his family said in a statement (via The New York Times). "From Marshall to Da 5 Bloods, August Wilson's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom and several more, all were filmed during and between countless surgeries and chemotherapy."

Boseman worked on seven feature films while fighting a private battle with cancer — an almost superhuman feat. "Mr. Boseman leveled the playing field while fighting for his life," his MCU co-star, Robert Downey Jr., tweeted. "That's heroism. I'll remember the good times, the laughter, and the way he changed the game.

After his death, it was revealed that Boseman had died without a will and that his widow, Taylor Simone Ledward, would be appointed personal representative of his estate (via ET). The news of Boseman's marriage to Ledward also came as a shock to his fans and the media, as it, too, was only announced after his passing.

Edie Falco was diagnosed with breast cancer hours before filming a scene on The Sopranos

The Sopranos star Edie Falco was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2003 during her time on the iconic HBO crime drama, but kept her condition secret for a year until she went into remission. "I didn't want anyone else to know. I'm not good with a lot of people going, 'How are you doing?' I just went about my day. We were working very long, difficult hours; everyone was exhausted," she later told the Emmy Foundation about her decision.

But the way Falco found out her diagnosis and how she processed that information shows the toughness of the actress. "I was diagnosed in the morning, but I had to be at work at one o'clock, to shoot a scene in which Tony and Carmela were sitting at a table," the Nurse Jackie star said. "I couldn't remember my lines; it was a real out-of-body experience. I couldn't process the news I had just gotten, and I hadn't really told anyone but executive producer Ilene Landress, who is still a good friend."

In a 2011 interview with The Guardian, Falco stated that surviving cancer didn't change her the way she thought it would. "I had all these large thoughts and I'm embarrassed to say they kinda went away," she admitted. "You start out with all these grand proclamations and here it is, almost eight years later, and I still b**ch about the same stuff."

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar kept his cancer diagnoses a secret for 12 years

In a December 2020 essay written for WebMD to address the racial disparity in America's healthcare system, NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar revealed that he was diagnosed with leukemia in 2008, and had also battled prostate cancer and had undergone heart bypass surgery in the past. 

"I've been fortunate because my celebrity has brought me enough financial security to receive excellent medical attention," he wrote. In addition to using the "Black Lives Matter" rallying cry to protest police brutality in the title, the Los Angeles Lakers icon explained that perhaps a more deadly menace was taking more lives of Black Americans: "The more insidious and damaging threat to the health, lives, and economic well-being of Black Americans is a health care system that ignores the fact that, though they are most in need of medical services, they actually receive the lowest level."

Abdul-Jabbar went on to explain why Black Americans were "more vulnerable" amid the pandemic while "contracting and dying from COVID-19 at higher rates" compared to other racial groups: pre-existing medical conditions, a higher rate of obesity, and most importantly, "because they work at what the government has defined as essential jobs more than any other ethnic group." He noted, "It's hard to feel valuable to a society that doesn't value your health or life."