When most people think of Hollywood actresses, they think of glitz and glamour, health and beauty, strength and youth, and talent and style.
Megan Park is no exception. She’s fit, blonde, ultra-cool, and uber-talented.
But even those who star on a hit television show are not immune to the perils of chronic illnesses like rheumatoid arthritis (RA).
The 28-year-old actress got her start in 2003 on a television movie and quickly shot to fame in ABC Family’s hit series, “The Secret Life of the American Teenager,” which ran from 2008 to 2013. She also starred in ABC’s “The Neighbors,” which ran from 2012 to 2014.
RA Diagnosis Revealed
The young actress didn’t reveal her RA diagnosis until quite recently when she decided to partner up with Janssen and Creaky Joints and their Joint Decisions initiative.
Her announcement in early June was a surprise to many who had no idea she was living with a painful autoimmune disease. But Park felt it was important to speak out.
"I think people are afraid of judgement or preconceptions. Perhaps, nervous that it would overshadow their artistry in people’s minds," Park told Healthline. "I personally think, if someone feels comfortable and ready, it usually becomes a wonderful opportunity to educate people and empower someone else dealing with the same illness or health problem."
In a statement to the press at the time, Park said, “In addition to living with RA myself, my mom also has RA, and she taught me how important it is to speak up about my health and seek answers and options when in the doctor's office. It’s important that each of us be the lead character in our own lives, arming ourselves with information that will help us be our own health advocates.”
Park told People Magazine that the biggest misconception about the illness is that it only affects older people — a sentiment that many younger RA patients share.
But she, like many, has lived with the painful and sometimes-debilitating effects of RA for nearly a decade.
She kept it private all the while, truly living a secret life as an American teenager. Her symptoms began as many do with joint swelling, pain, and disability.
Going Public to Increase Awareness
Her main goal now is to raise public awareness.
“It's empowering people who live with RA to share in the healthcare decisions that are going to impact their life and their overall well-being,” she told members of the media.
Park has tried not to let her pain and disability prevent her from working as an actress. Many people with RA aren’t so lucky.
Park has learned to balance and pace herself, wanting to jeopardize neither her career nor her health. She has stated that living with RA has made her more empathic as an actress.
"I think it has made me aware that everyone has a plight," Park told Healthline. "Whether its physical or not, everyone has struggles they are dealing with. I take that into account when I'm playing a character. I think it helps me add dimension to a role and has widened my perspective on life and its struggles and it's triumphs."
Park must also deal with the disease on a day-to-day basis at work.
"I have to self-manage more than maybe someone else my age," she said. "I take my work very seriously and have been fortunate that living with arthritis has never stopped me from working, but I absolutely have to take extra care of my body to ensure I'm able to continue working in the same capacity I am now."
For example, Park makes sure she gets enough sleep.
"I may modify the amount of physical activity I'm doing especially if my work is also physical," she said. "What shoes I wear on sets for long days is really important for my joints, too. Taking the time to sit down and rest my body in between scenes. It's little things that all add up."
Young RA patients think it’s great to see a person they admire speak out about their disease. There is no shortage of people with juvenile arthritis. In fact, about 300,000 kids, teens, and young adults live with the juvenile form of RA.
Mackenzie Russo, 13, of Pomona, California, said, “I think it’s cool to see a movie star talking about arthritis. It is important for adults to know that kids can get arthritis too, even if they are rich and famous.”
Darla Smith of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, agrees.
“My daughter and son were both diagnosed with childhood arthritis and growing up never had a role model or high-profile person to look up to with the disease. They felt like outsiders, like something was wrong with them, so to see an actor or actress come out with RA just like they had would have been great. It’s nice of Ms. Park to step up to the plate,” she said.
Park has advice to other young people dealing with rheumatoid arthritis.
"You are not alone," she said. "I know what those aches and pains feel like. I know what having an 'bad RA' day is. I have them, too. Try to remember that RA is not your whole story, just a part of it."
Check here for Megan Park’s Joint Decisions video chats where she will interact with fans and discuss her life with RA. Look for her in the upcoming film, “Room.”