While Tichina Arnold is known for numerous hit shows like “Martin,” “Happily Divorced,” “Everybody Hates Chris,” and starring on her latest series, CBS’ “The Neighborhood,” her most important role has been taking care of her younger sister, Zenay. The younger Arnold was diagnosed with lupus and six other autoimmune diseases at the age of 32.
Lupus is a mysterious disease that can cause a variety of symptoms, from a signature butterfly-shaped rash on the cheeks and nose, to fatigue and muscle and joint pain. It’s a chronic disease that strikes without warning and is difficult to diagnose and has no cure. There are roughly 1.5 million people in the U.S. living with lupus, and 99% of them are women. Like Zenay, one in three people with lupus also suffer from multiple autoimmune diseases. Lupus is also three times more common in African American women than in Caucasian women.
Following Zenay’s diagnosis, the close-knit sisters created the We Win Foundation, a nonprofit organization that brings much-needed support for those with lupus by raising awareness, providing counseling, and holding fundraisers. The organization also provides financial and food assistance to people with lupus who are in need.
Healthywomen talked to the dynamic duo about how the debilitating disease has impacted their lives.
Not being heard
As young girls growing up in the Arnold household in Queens, New York, Tichina had little awareness of her younger sister’s medical issues, which included skin rashes, being allergic to the sun, and fatigue. “We always thought she was being dramatic! We have different personalities,” she said.
But Tichina did notice Zenay’s bad migraine headaches and excessively painful menstrual cycles.
“I remember my mom and I were sitting in the living room, watching TV. Zenay came down and said, ‘Mom, I have cramps.’ And we told her, That’s okay, you’ll get past it! Welcome to a lifetime of cramps!’ And she sat there for a moment, but then actually passed out. I was like, ‘Really?! You are going to be this dramatic?!”
With no diagnosis, it was impossible to tell what Zenay was dealing with.
“There were a lot of other signs too, but we didn’t know what it was,” Tichina said. “She wasn’t diagnosed. You know how it is with Black families back then, living paycheck to paycheck. It’s usually like ‘Give her Robitussin and keep it movin’!'”
As Zenay grew older, she experienced incredible exhaustion, painful joints, and inflammation that was so bad she couldn’t even move her hands well enough to put her hair in a bun. But her resilience kept Tichina from fully realizing the extent of what was happening.
“We’re tough cookies,” Tichina explained. “We come from a generation of strong women that if something comes up, you . . . handle it! Zenay never wore her illness on her sleeve. I had seen her be at 80% with pain, and still press through.”
Then, a defining moment at the airport changed everything.
“Zenay’s health situation wasn’t real to me, until one day, when we were traveling. We went through the X-ray machine, and I called out to her to hurry up. I heard her say, ‘I can’t take my shoes off.’ I’ll never forget that feeling of worry and fear. I had to go back through and untie her shoes for her. It literally shocked me — to be fine one minute and then incapacitated the next — that’s pretty crazy.”
Living in denial
Those were the years where Zenay admitted she was living “in denial,” working 100 hours a week as a paralegal.
“I [attributed] all the pain I was feeling to stress,” Zenay said. “And then one day, all the symptoms manifested; I woke up and couldn’t move. I had to be rushed to the hospital. They did all this testing and found I had six autoimmune diseases: rheumatoid arthritis, Raynaud’s disease, Sjogren’s syndrome, hyperlipidemia, mixed connective tissue disease and scleroderma — and was told I was ‘borderline lupus.'” Within six weeks, in 2004, they told her she had full-blown lupus.
Changing her life
Zenay has been drastically affected by lupus and her autoimmune diseases. “The pain can go from my feet to my hands and then my entire body. It really varies with each day, some days are milder than others.” To combat her lupus flares, she uses a combination of western and eastern medicine/alternative treatments, including turmeric, lemon and autoimmune herbs in addition to prescribed medications. “My best friend is a hot water bottle!”
While Zenay was in a New York hospital, Tichina was working in Los Angeles, living with her new baby girl, Alijah.
“I would get all the information via the telephone, with the doctors. I knew it was bad. Zenay was neglecting digging into what was going on. She thought they were just going to give her some medication and that’s it. You hope that it’s not going to be as bad as it is.”
With her mom wanting to move cross country so she could help take care of Alijah, Tichina knew it was time for Zenay to come as well. “I truly don’t think she would have survived, staying in that kind of [cold] climate.”
Zenay now lives in California, works with Tichina and has marveled at how her illnesses have been a blessing to the Arnold sisters in some ways.
“Prior to my diagnosis, Tichina and I were living separate lives . . . I had no plans to move to California. I truly believe that my diseases and Alijah’s birth brought my sister and I together,” Zenay explained.
“And now here we are, years later, Tichina and I are working together; I am her manager and we have our own production company and have several writing projects. We are literally each other’s best friends.”
Tichina, too, has been profoundly moved by Zenay’s health experiences and wants to do whatever she can to make her feel good.
“We have done so much research to figure out how best to handle what was happening. The family have all stepped up to the plate in order to deal with her illness . . . drive Zenay to medical appointments, change her clothes, give her medications and put her to bed . . . whatever burden we can bear so that she wouldn’t have to,” Tichina said.
We Win Foundation
While the Arnold sisters have a strong family of support, not everyone is that fortunate. This is why Tichina and Zenay created the We Win Foundation.
“Our pressing objective is to be a source of comfort, hope and information for the uninformed and underserved who suffer from lupus,” Tichina said. “There are literally people dying by themselves from this disease. We just want to make sure we practice what we preach and share what we have learned and have been through. It’s definitely not an easy road.”
One of their foundation’s initiatives is The Selfish Project, an online program that teaches women who suffer from autoimmune diseases how to practice self-care and take time to rejuvenate and reduce stress levels.
“We want women to know they are not alone,” Zenay enthused. “No matter how hard, scary and lonely it gets, there is always someone praying for them.”
Zenay strives to keep a positive outlook, giving hope to the numerous people she has helped. “I have a disease for every day of the week! As my uncle says, we need comedy with the tragedy,” she said with a smile.
Lupus Foundation of America