Emma Caulfield Ford Talks MS Journey After Keeping Diagnosis a Secret: 'I’m Lucky to Be Where I Am' (Exclusive)

“I’m very aware that with MS everything could change tomorrow,” the 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' alum, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2010, tells PEOPLE

<p>Amanda Friedman</p> Emma Caulfield

Amanda Friedman

Emma Caulfield

It was late summer of 2010, and actress Emma Caulfield Ford had been in the midst of shooting the comedy/drama TV series Gigantic in L.A. when she woke up one morning to find that the left side of her face had gone numb.

“I thought it was a pinched nerve, like I’d done some weird yoga move or something,” says Caulfield Ford, who’s best known for her role as Anya, a vengeful demon in human form, on the hit ’90s TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

She chalked it up to pressures from work and a “horrific” year of stress in her personal life—and went to see her acupuncturist. He wondered if she might have Bell’s palsy (a usually temporary facial paralysis that can often be related to stress) and suggested she get an MRI.

“And so I did,” says Caulfield Ford, whose symptoms had disappeared after a couple of weeks. “I met with my neurologist, and he did a bunch of exams. But there was no urgency at the time — so when he called me at work, I was completely shook.”

Her MRI results showed that Caulfield Ford had relapsing remitting multiple sclerosis.

“I was kind of out of my body,” recalls Caulfield Ford, whose father also had MS. “I’d just gotten this devastating news, and they’re like, ‘We’re ready for you on-set.’ So I sucked it up and put on a good face. It was surreal.”

<p>Amanda Friedman</p> Emma Caulfield

Amanda Friedman

Emma Caulfield

Related: CNN's John King Opens Up About His Multiple Sclerosis Diagnosis: 'I'm a Very Lucky Man'

Since then Caulfield Ford’s symptoms have remained extremely mild. While she sometimes suffers from an acute sensitivity to heat and stress, she doesn’t take medication — and thus far hasn’t experienced any of the debilitating flare-ups, fatigue and muscle weakness often associated with MS.

“I’m very, very fortunate,” says the 50-year-old, who lives in Los Angeles with her husband, British actor Mark Ford, 42, and their 7-year-old daughter Knightley. “But I’m also aware that, with MS, this could all change tomorrow.”

Multiple sclerosis is a chronic autoimmune disease that affects an estimated 1 million Americans. While the cause is unknown, MS attacks the central nervous system, creating lesions on the brain and spinal cord, and damaging the protective layer surrounding the nerve fibers, called myelin. That disrupts signals to and from the brain, leading to a range of symptoms, including tingling, numbness, blurred vision and fatigue, among others.

“MS can affect any part of your brain or your spinal cord, so it can cause all sorts of trouble,” says Dr. Peter Calabresi, professor of neurology and director of the MS Center at Johns Hopkins University. “[Which is why] there are so many different types, and everyone experiences something different.”

MS has no cure, but Calabresi points to promising re- search. “We have newer drugs that can dramatically reduce MS activity and, for some people, completely put the disease in remission.”

<p>Amanda Friedman</p> Emma Caulfield

Amanda Friedman

Emma Caulfield

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Caulfield Ford grew up in San Diego, the youngest of two daughters to Rodney Chukker, a financial adviser who died in 2017, and Denise, 78, a stay-at-home mom. (Caulfield Ford changed her last name when she was 19, “because I like the Catcher in the Rye character,” she says.) A self-described “dramatic child,” Caulfield Ford was drawn to acting and theater clubs growing up and studied drama at the American School in Switzerland (TASIS) in London the summer before her senior year in high school.

“It was fun to perform. Though I don’t know how good I was at it,” she says. “I acted for fun as a hobby. At that point I had a whole different life planned out for myself; acting was not my absolute dream thing.”

She moved to L.A. in 1994 intending to study psychology at UCLA — when fate stepped in. Just before school started, a talent agent stopped her on the street one day, handed her his card—and said she should look into acting. Turns out he was “kind of a big deal,” says Caulfield Ford, whose friends persuaded her to call him several months later. She auditioned for a commercial and a TV guest spot and got both gigs.

"I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is so easy,’ ” recalls Caulfield Ford with a laugh. “ ‘Everything’s going to be this easy forever.’ It was so silly.”

With her parents’ blessing, she left college and started waiting tables in between auditions. A year later she landed the role of Susan Keats, Brandon Walsh’s girlfriend (played by Jason Priestley) on Beverly Hills, 90210 — and never looked back. She auditioned for a guest-star role on the WB’s sci-fi hit Buffy the Vampire Slayer, then turned her character Anya into a series regular through the show’s final season in 2003. “It allowed me to buy my first house, and I made some lifelong friends,” she told Vanity Fair in 2022.

Emma Caulfield
Emma Caulfield

Related: Emma Caulfield Reveals Multiple Sclerosis Diagnosis: 'I Just Have to Keep Going'

In the years that followed, Caulfield Ford continued to find steady work, mostly doing TV roles. So when she learned about her MS diagnosis in 2010, she panicked, thinking it would negatively impact her career—and decided to keep it a secret. 

“I was like, ‘Oh my God, what’s going to happen? What am I going to do?’ ” she recalls. “So I told no one, not even my sister. There are just too many reasons people don’t hire you as it is. I didn’t need to give them any other excuse.”

She succeeded in keeping her condition “really, really quiet” for the next decade (“My husband  knew, but nobody else did,” she says) — until one hot, sweltering day in L.A. in August 2020, on the set of Marvel Studio’s WandaVision TV series.

“We were all in a sort of hot box,” says Caulfield Ford, who had been cast as Sarah Proctor/Dottie Jones, a ’60s sitcom-themed character from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. “I started feeling dizzy and faint. I was like, ‘My body can’t take this.’ I was putting myself under too much physical duress, being out in the heat and breathing the bad air.”

She managed to cool herself down with ice packs, but the episode left her body depleted for several weeks. She realized she was risking her own well-being by concealing her MS.

“I was like, ‘I can’t be afraid anymore. I have to tell the truth. It’s not good for my health,’ ” remembers Caulfield Ford, who initially shared her condition with her close friend and WandaVision creator, Jac Schaeffer. “She was so kind and sweet. She was like, ‘First of all, I feel horrible that you went through that, and we didn’t help you.’ Every- one was incredibly supportive.”

<p>Amanda Friedman</p> Emma Caulfield

Amanda Friedman

Emma Caulfield

Related: Christina Applegate Spreads Her “FU MS” Message Two Years After Diagnosis Through Cane Collaboration (Exclusive)

Happily, since then Caulfield Ford’s health has remained stable. A series of three MRIs in recent months showed no active lesions, a sign that her MS has not progressed.

“I’m stable — and I’ve made it a huge priority to do things so I stay that way,” says Caulfield Ford, who avoids heat and the sun, stretches regularly and does daily workouts on her Power Plate, a vibrating workout machine. “I’m dripping sweat in 20 minutes on that thing.”

She’s lately developed a sensitivity to cacophonous noise, which she thinks is MS-related, and admits that the disease is never far from her mind.

“I’m like, ‘My back’s a little sore today. Is that MS or is that because you turned 50?’ And I don’t know,” says Caulfield Ford, who takes comfort spending time with husband Mark, whom she met through mutual friends in 2011, and doing jigsaw puzzles and gardening with daughter Knightley. “I feel quite good, and that’s good news.”

Looking ahead, Caulfield Ford has an upcoming role on the Wanda­ Vision series spinoff Agatha: Darkhold Diaries later this year—and plans to continue sharing her MS journey with others. “It’s one of the reasons I decided to go public,” she says, “because if someone can recognize themselves or gain some inspiration from my experience, that’s wonderful.”

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