R&B superstar Toni Braxton shares strategies for living well with lupus—and why she won’t stop performing.
Grammy-winner Toni Braxton has had a whirlwind year, but she’s not complaining. When you’re releasing an album, writing a memoir (Unbreak My Heart, due in March) and chasing after two boys (Denim, 11, and Diezel, 10), it all comes with the territory. Looking at her, you’d never guess just a few years ago a health scare threatened her career.
In 2008, Toni collapsed while performing in Las Vegas. In the emergency room, doctors first thought she’d had a ‘baby heart attack.’ “Twenty-three percent of my microvalves and the small blood vessels in my heart were receiving no oxygen,” Toni recalls. Further testing led to a diagnosis. “The blood work was undeniable,” she says. “It showed I have lupus.”
Toni discovered lupus is a lifelong disease in which the immune system attacks healthy tissue. It affects about 1.5 million Americans, mostly women, and causes a range of symptoms, from rashes and joint pain to inflammation of the heart, lungs and other organs. “For some, it’s their skin and scalp,” Toni notes. “For me, it’s internal. It loves my heart. It’s like it wants to sit there and say, ‘Hi,’ and hang out.”
“They said I shouldn’t perform”
Since her lupus diagnosis, Toni has learned to manage her disease with medication and lifestyle changes, including adopting more heart-healthy habits. She follows a metabolism-revving diet, not to lose weight but “because it helps me make better choices.” Toni also exercises daily, doing gentle workouts, like walking on a treadmill or around the neighborhood, to avoid taxing her body.
Still, there are times when her lupus symptoms return with full force. In December 2012, Toni was hospitalized when a lupus flare caused blood clots, resulting in a crisis that challenged not only her health but also her career. “The doctors said performing wasn’t something I should do,” Toni reveals. Faced with the prospect of forced retirement, the singer grew depressed.
“Retire? No way!”
Luckily, Toni’s loved ones stepped in. “I was becoming dark,” she says. “My friends did a ‘Toni outreach program’ and said, ‘We’ve got to get you out of this phase.’ They really helped me,” shares Toni. “I was so tired of being scared. I decided I’m not going to retire; I’m going to live and enjoy life!”
Case in point: Toni has been busy making a duet album (to be released in December) with legendary music producer Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds. But she almost passed on the opportunity. “Babyface said, ‘Let’s do an album together,’ ” Toni recalls. “But I fought him on it, and he said it would be therapeutic.”
The result? “It was the best thing I’ve done in five years,” gushes the singer-songwriter. “It’s called Love, Marriage and Divorce—which is my life!”
Toni Braxton’s tips for taming lupus flare triggers.
Lupus flare trigger: long work hours
Toni used to power through the fatigue of juggling a demanding career and raising children.
Tame it: trim your schedule
The singing star kept her recent tour brief to test her stamina and keep stress from triggering a flare. And when she can’t clear her calendar? “There are days I don’t feel like putting on a smiling face, but I make myself,” says Toni, who relies on humor, like watching the Ellen DeGeneres Show, to brighten her mood.
Lupus flare trigger: too much sun
Experts say overexposure to sunlight is a common lupus trigger. “Summer is challenging, because the sun is not my friend,” says Toni.
Tame it: shield your skin
Before heading out, Toni takes care to wear protective clothing and sunscreen even when it’s not summer.
Lupus flare trigger: feeling keyed up
“I tried to meditate, I tried yoga, but I just can’t turn my brain off,” Toni admits. “It’s too much time for me to think.”
Tame it: take a mental vacation
“I listen to music; I play the piano. I do things that will take me out of my world for a moment.”
Lupus flare trigger: the stress of staying silent
On the advice of a close friend, Toni kept her diagnosis a secret for two years, for fear it could stall her career or affect her insurance coverage if she went public with it.
Tame it: make a connection
Toni says being open about her condition has been empowering, and that keeping things bottled up could deter you from getting the care you need. “Tell people what you’re feeling; it’s all about you getting healthy,” she says.
Toni volunteers for Lupus LA, and today she urges others to connect with groups like the S.L.E. Lupus Foundation (lupusny.org and lupusla.org) and The Lupus Foundation of America (lupus.org). “As many bad days as we have, remember that the good days are coming—they’ll be back,” says Toni. “There are new medications coming out geared especially for lupus patients. That’s exciting.”
Know the signs and symptoms of lupus
More than half of patients go at least four years before receiving a correct diagnosis, estimates the Lupus Foundation of America (LFA). Tell your healthcare provider right away if you notice any of the symptoms below—and that includes alerting your doctor if they occur after you’ve been diagnosed.
Sometimes, new or worsening symptoms mean your treatment is no longer working, says Gary Gilkeson, MD, a medical adviser for the LFA. So if you have a flare, tell your doctor; you may need a physical exam, lab tests or a change in medication.