“My animals constantly show me how simple life can be,” Inaba says. “One of my cats, Taz, has health challenges, and I have to feed him his water through a tube. I take him to a specialist and closely watch his quality of life, and I think positive thoughts when I’m with him, surrounding him with positive energy. That’s something I learned while dealing with my own health challenges. I think you can do things to enhance your wellness, and part of that is accepting where you are at that moment. Denial doesn’t get you very far.”

The Importance of Listening to Your Body

carrie-ann11Inaba has firsthand knowledge of learning to adapt to physical setbacks. In 2012, she had surgery for spinal stenosis, a condition that puts pressure on the nerves of the spine, causing pain or numbness in the back, neck, shoulders, arms or legs and one that Inaba attributes to years of strenuous dancing. And then more recently, she was diagnosed with Sjögren’s syndrome, an autoimmune disorder in which the glands that produce tears and saliva are destroyed, causing dry mouth and dry eyes and possibly affecting other parts of the body, including the kidneys and lungs.

“Over the past seven years, I just kept noticing things that didn’t seem right,” Inaba recalls. “I’m a dancer, and working out is primo important—the first thing I do in the morning. Over time, I found that I was tired and lethargic, and I began to make excuses to not work out. But my dad was very sick at the time, and I had just bought a new house and broken up with my fiancé, so I thought it was a reaction to all that was happening. Then one morning, I woke up with a lump in my neck, and I went immediately to my father’s oncologist, who ruled out cancer. He then sent me to a rheumatologist, who diagnosed Sjögren’s syndrome. Now I tell people that rheumatologists are the best doctors to see when something is going on. They are the private investigators of medicine.”

Once Sjögren’s syndrome had been diagnosed, Inaba had to decide how she was going to proceed with treatment. Self-described as “someone who doesn’t want to take drugs,” Inaba says it took six months after her diagnosis and living with Sjögren’s syndrome to start her treatment plan.

“The medication for Sjögren’s is an anti-malaria medication that can affect your vision as a side effect,” she explains. “For my wonderful job all I need to do is see and speak, so I didn’t want to take the medicine initially because I thought it might affect my ability to do my job. My doctor warned me that Sjögren’s can become quite serious and spread into organs, so I finally decided to start the medication. Now I am so grateful that I did—it really helps with the chronic fatigue that accompanies Sjögren’s. But I went through the stages—sad, angry, frustrated—and then thought, ‘I’m going to beat this’ before I finally accepted that I had a chronic condition and needed to take the medication. It eventually turned out to be the biggest blessing for me, because my life became much more peaceful as a result.”

A New Way of Living

living with Sjögren’s syndromeWith the same mindfulness and watchful eye she keeps on her beloved Taz, Inaba pays close attention to what her body is telling her from minute to minute on any given day. After her diagnosis, one of the first things she did was change her schedule to accommodate downtime, realizing that her habit of working from early morning until late at night needed to be revised to make room for relaxation.

“Recently, I met my soul mate and when I went to visit him in Italy, I realized that the trip was the first vacation I had ever taken in my adult life,” Inaba says. “I had to learn how to slow down. I started listening to my body—for example, if the weather changes, I have a really hard time —and that strange work ethic I developed as a child has been changed to allow more time for simply enjoying life.”

Getting plenty of rest and eating an anti-inflammatory diet are at the top of Inaba’s current to-do list, along with listening to music, keeping a reasonable work schedule and enjoying time with her animals. She says she tries to maintain a balance that doesn’t emphasize total deprivation: “I will eat nachos if I want to eat nachos.” Inaba says when it comes to living with pain, personal choices are important. Her personal pain management strategy is an “East meets West” approach that combines some traditional medicines with exercise and acupuncture, and Inaba adds that she’s learning to understand the consequences of every choice she makes.

[RELATED: Is Acupuncture Worth a Try?]

“I know that if I work out too hard, I am going to be in pain for the next three days,” she explains. “But I also don’t hesitate to take medicine that helps me get rid of the pain quickly. One of the things I learned from spinal stenosis is that the longer you allow yourself to have pain, the stronger the pain pathways become. The best advice I ever got was not to try to ‘suffer through the pain.’ Before, I would let the pain come and creep up on me, and then my body was in stress and reacted.

“If you take a painkiller and shut down the pain pathway quickly, the threshold of pain doesn’t keep getting higher, and then I’m likely to not need to take painkillers for as long—and this is important,” Inaba says.“ You have to be careful with painkillers; they are addictive and hard on the body. So in the case of a flare-up, I don’t wait to take the pain medicine. I take it before bed on the night the pain starts, and then I usually wake up and the pain is contained. Before, when I waited a few days, I found that I had to take the painkillers for a longer period of time.”

living with Sjögren’s syndrome

Caregiving

Inaba’s health issues came on the heels of her parents’ serious illnesses and her role as their caregiver. Seven years ago, her mother was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer, and then five years ago, her father was diagnosed with tongue cancer. Inaba cared for both parents during their treatments and says she learned how important it is to respect the wishes of the per-son battling a serious health condition.

“It’s very frightening in the beginning,” she says. “You feel responsible for holding the person up. But when you are in the role of a caregiver, you have to allow the patient to feel what they feel. I did a lot of reading on medicine and philosophy, and books about life after death, and I made sure I was the keeper of the information concerning their conditions and treatment. I read a lot of message boards to get a perspective about what happens to other people, and while I didn’t use them for medical advice, I did find out about resources and learn more about their illnesses.”

Being the keeper of the information is an important role for caregivers, Inaba says. But she adds that it is equally important to allow the loved one to choose from the available options and then respect his or her wishes. “Being sick and having fears and pains and all that goes along with it is a big moment in a person’s life, a moment when a lot of people make peace,” she says. “There are beautiful secrets that can be unlocked, but it takes a lot of patience. And sometimes it’s really hard and you get scared, but you have to let them decide what is going to happen. I had good friends who listened and supported me, and that helped me maintain the right perspective.”

Healing Through Helping

One of Inaba’s ongoing initiatives is The Animal Project Foundation, an organization that sponsors spay/neuter festivals in Los Angeles. She founded the project to help with the problem of homeless pets, noting that only half of the animals that go into shelters survive.

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“With the festivals, we’re helping people become responsible pet owners while having a good time,” Inaba says. “We’re offering free vaccinations, spaying, neutering and microchipping. We’ve done the festival in LA and will continue to do so, but I’d also like to take the festivals national, working with shelters, local businesses and restaurants. We’re currently looking for sponsors, and we’ll host our second festival here in January.”

carrie-ann88While The Animal Project Foundation and Dancing with the Stars keep Inaba comfortably busy, the dynamic DWTS judge is also working on a book project—“a wonderful trilogy”—and is exploring a daytime show. It’s a full schedule, but one that Inaba is managing well, courtesy of her newfound commitment to taking care of herself.

“I’m checking out the opportunities that might be available,” she says. “I’ve lived a full life and I’ve learned a lot, and I’d like to share some of that. I like to think that I am a ‘student of life,’ always learning and growing, and even though my life is far from perfect, I have a lot to share. It’s not so much about giving advice, but listening instead.” {PP}