In June 2015, Kate Walsh was diagnosed with a brain tumor. The actress — known to millions for her role as Dr. Addison Montgomery in “Grey’s Anatomy” and the spinoff “Private Practice” — had been experiencing fatigue and balance issues since January but chalked it up to working 19 hour days on a TV show that had just wrapped.
But when symptoms intensified, Walsh had an MRI. It revealed a benign meningioma tumor the size of a lemon on the left lobe of her brain. Fortunately, the tumor was removed three days later and Kate is back in good health. But the experience was a jolt for her, and now she’s doing everything she can to get more people listening to their bodies. And part of that means getting annual checkups.
You’ve probably already seen Walsh in TV spots for Cigna as part of their campaign to save 100,000 lives by getting more people to sign up for an annual physical. She’s teamed up with other TV doctors to get the message out, like Donald Faison (“Scrubs”), Neil Patrick Harris (“Dougie Howser”), and Patrick Dempsey, who played her on and off husband (it’s complicated) on “Grey’s Anatomy.”
We caught up with Walsh to learn more about the campaign and how her tumor scare has transformed her outlook on life.
What event took place that contributed to you wanting to start that campaign?
Well, I had, as you know, a brain tumor a couple of years ago and subsequently brain surgery. And I chose at the time to keep it private and focus on my recovery and my health… but always with the idea that I would want to talk about it at some point, when I could partner with someone in a meaningful way to hopefully be of service to others with my story and experience.
So Cigna came along and it was a perfect partnership for me, for a myriad of reasons. I know for me, even when I was playing a TV doctor, I always did my annual OB-GYN checkup. But I didn't have a GP for several years, and that was really important to get that done. To have that and to develop a meaningful relationship with my doctor and find someone that I trusted implicitly and really loved to talk to.
Also, I’m hoping that sharing my experience will really encourage women, in particular, because we multitask. We're mothers, daughters, wives, girlfriends… We're working. And we usually put ourselves on the bottom of the list.
Most, if not all, health insurance covers an annual visit. So that's what I really was drawn to. And also just Cigna's message of preventive care as opposed to waiting until there's an illness or a problem. Preventive, as opposed to reactionary.
When you were diagnosed you were working 19-hour days. You just thought, ‘Oh, I was tired.’ And, like many of us, you just found a reason to keep going.
Yes, you plow through. Most people don't have a choice. You've got to go to work. My particular line of work, I might have breaks, or I do a movie or a TV show and then I have some time off. But most people are working 40-plus hours a week and so you don't want to take the time — when you have to get your kids up in the morning or you have 800 other things to do — to go to the doctor unless it's something really bad. And again, women particularly wait until they can't get out of bed.
So, we just have to change the way we approach it. Just like we changed the conversation about exercise and fitness to where it's like, “Oh, we have to do it. We should do it every day. We should be moving our bodies.”
We should be seeing a doctor annually and getting our blood work done. We’re not mentalists, we don't understand what's happening on the inside of our body. So we get our blood work done, and see, “Oh, I have a lot of edemas issues here. What's my blood sugar level? What's my body mass index?”
Just understanding, asking questions, and having that be a positive experience, as opposed to a fearful, terrifying, or “wait until something is wrong” kind of experience.
What was your initial reaction when it was revealed that you had a tumor on the left side of your brain?
Well, shock. Shock, and I kind of left my body. And then relief that it was actually a knowable, kind of quantifiable thing. It was scary that, of course, they didn't know if it was benign or not. I'd never entertained the idea there was a brain tumor in my head, although I definitely wanted an MRI because I knew something was off. And cognitively I was having challenges other than being exhausted, and having balance issues and everything.
So I had lots of different emotions. And then I was just sort of floating. I just did whatever they told me. It all happened relatively quickly, because three days later I had the surgery. So I did what they told me to do, which is a beautiful lesson. “Yes, what do you want? OK.”
What was the emotional impact of this experience and how did you emotionally handle that?
I was just submitting to the process. I was a little scared and it was the kind of thing where, you know, it's all very cliché. You're like, “Well, if I don't make it, I've had a really great run. If I do, then…” It was all the cliché things.
What was your recovery process like?
When I came out of surgery and anesthesia, I was like, “Oh! I'm back!” Like I had been sort of in this cloud for so long, and I was back to me. And that felt like such a relief. And then I only stayed two nights in the hospital and I was home. The recovery is pretty swift in many ways, and in other ways it's slower. It's like the computer is rebooting. In some ways, you get physically stronger and stronger, and then it will be a delayed reaction of the trauma.
But one of the biggest lessons was letting myself be taken care of by family and friends, and I had such a great support system. I also found it very helpful to find people who had the same surgery as I had, but were years beyond it. So that they could talk to me and tell me.
It's just a remarkable sort of process — the recovery of the brain. We're learning so much about the brain, and we will learn so much more. It's such a mystery. But they do know that it's the plasticity of the brain that makes it highly impressionable.
And so the wonderful thing about it is, one's recovery is one's own recovery. It's very personal. And that part of it is kind of exciting because, I don't know how to articulate that, but there's a sort of consciousness to it in making it a good experience.
But it was such a great lesson for me to take my time and really get well. And I'm very fortunate in that I have a job and a profession and the means to have done that. I know not everyone does. To get the support. Particularly in our culture, where we feel like we have to go it alone and work harder. Do more. Faster. Stronger.
Slowing down, and asking for help, is just massively important.
You mentioned some trauma. Many people who do experience that tend to play a lot of what if scenarios in their minds. Did you feel like you were a little stuck in the past, or was it a little easier to move forward in that?
No, I really was sort of in the moment. That was one of the guesses. Like, really being in the moment and staying as present as possible. And again, asking other people who had been through it before was very helpful.
My doctor said you can't exercise for three months. I'm like ‘OK.’ And when they said you should do more strength training and oxygenate the brain [as it's] really important to get cardio in there, too. I'm like ‘OK.’ I did whatever I was told, which is not always in my nature. I was very proactive, and very independent, and singular in my thinking. I sometimes thought I had a better idea of how to do things, so that was a really great experience to submit to that.
You’ve mentioned several times you listened to what your doctor was telling you. So, looking back on your experience, what advice do you think your character played on ‘Grey's Anatomy’ would tell you?
Well, Addison was very capable. She would be very bossy with me and I would probably do exactly what she said.
You seem to be approaching health in a new light. What does health mean to you now, and how are you prioritizing it now?
Well, again, self-care is just so important. And part of it just comes with aging. What you can do at 20, you can't do at 30. You can't do at 40. It's just different. Everything changes, always. So I am really careful about that.
Like, I love food, and I love eating. I'm Italian-Irish and I like to eat. But I'm also really careful about what I eat. I've always meditated, but I meditate even more now. I just take care of myself, which means I can't do as much. And that was a big lesson for me to learn. ‘I can't do as much if I'm going to take care of myself.’ That's just the bottom line. Eight hours of sleep: necessary. Lots of water: necessary. Exercise: necessary.
Part of the reason I wanted to become an actress was so I could do everything. I wanted to experience as much as I can. I'll play all these different roles. I want to pretend to be a doctor, and pretend to be this and that. And to go, “Oh! Why do I not get to do everything?” And it’s an ego hit to say, “Oh, yeah, I'm just human. I've got to slow down if I want to be well.”
It's a lesson a lot of people need to learn and it's cool to hear you say that. Even in the beginning, just knowing, ‘Yes, I've got to start listening to my body.’
Yes, exactly. Listen to your body. We’re in a culture that says we should be doing everything all the time and enjoying it, and having a blast. We're encouraged to be supermen and superwomen, and do it all. And that’s just not real. And it's not healthy.
What actions, other than going to get their annual checkup, do you want people to do to participate in the campaign?
They can go to Cigna.com. The goal is to get another 100,000 people, if not more, registered to do their annual checkup. Just go. Know.
We really appreciate you standing up and telling your story and impacting a lot of people so that they also prioritize themselves.
Sometimes, people get nervous or scared or have anxiety about going to doctors. It's like they don't want to hear about it. What if it's bad news?
I used to get nervous, too. I remember once a girlfriend volunteered to come with me, and it was like, “Is that even allowed?” And it is. It is allowed, and it was really helpful. Whether it's bringing your partner, or your friend. Someone with you that can be there for support. I know, I'll forget to ask questions sometimes. I'm like, “Oh, I should have done that. I should have asked that question.” But if you have someone there with you, if you get nervous, or you forget, or whatever, you have backup and support.
This interview has been edited for brevity, length, and clarity.