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Former MTV VJ Karen ‘Duff’ Duffy opens up about the debilitating illness that sidelined her career

Former MTV VJ Karen 'Duff' Duffy was diagnosed with a rare form of sarcoidosis of the central nervous system when she was in her mid-30s.

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Karen Duffy, best known to MTV viewers as “Duff” in the ’90s, was diagnosed with a rare form of sarcoidosis of the central nervous system when she was in her mid-30s that has left the former VJ living with decades of chronic pain.

In an interview with People promoting her new book, Wise Up: Irreverent Enlightenment from a Mother Who’s Been Through It, Duffy recalls the last “normal” day of her life, attending the September 1995 Emmys with her longtime friend George Clooney.

“That was the last day that I lived without chronic pain,” Duffy remembers. “It was the next day that I became symptomatic with sarcoidosis. That photo marks the end of my healthy life with one of the most charming and hilarious gentlemen. Talk about going out with a bang!”

The next day, Duffy woke up with excruciating head and neck pain that she describes as “like an electric eel swimming up my spinal column.” After flying back to New York, her doctor discovered the source of her pain: an inoperable “mostaccioli-sized” lesion that was pressing against her brain stem and spinal cord and had crushed her nerves. Nine months later, Duffy would be diagnosed with the inflammatory disease that changed the course of her life.

Last May, Duffy celebrated her 60th birthday, which is quite the milestone considering everything she’s been through, including one near-death experience when her respiratory system was in danger of shutting down. “I just can’t believe I got here,” she tells the publication. “There were times I didn’t think I’d make it. I feel like this is all a bonus round.”

But despite her health-related challenges, Duffy has had quite a life and career. In 1997, she married her husband and the couple welcomed their son Jack “Lefty” Lambros, now 18, via surrogate in 2003. She’s also written a total of four books and co-produced both Bill Murray’s 2021 documentary, New Worlds: The Cradle Of Civilization, and the upcoming Apple TV war drama starring Zac Efron, The World’s Greatest Beer Run Ever, in addition to being an advocate for those living with chronic pain.

“My friend Karen Duffy, who lives with unimaginable pain, has taught me so much; that my complaints are the most ridiculous in the world,” Clooney wrote as a blurb for her last book, Backbone: Living with Chronic Pain without Turning into One.

“Living with chronic pain has taught me to jam as many happy moments as I can into the day,” Duffy shares with People, which notes that her optimism has inspired her son Jack. “I’ve learned so much from her,” he tells the magazine. “To be aware of what we can do better and to always have a positive outlook which she always has even when stuff doesn’t always go our way.”

Stacey Ritzen
About the author

Stacey Ritzen

Stacey Ritzen is a Philadelphia-based reporter with 15 years of experience covering pop culture, entertainment, web culture, and news. She has previously worked for outlets including Uproxx, Pajiba, Daily Dot, and more.