In an exclusive with People Toni Braxton is opening up about a “traumatic” and life-threatening health scare that occurred as a result of her living with systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), the most common form of lupus.
The 55-year-old singer — who was diagnosed with SLE in 2008 — revealed to PEOPLE that back in September she underwent a procedure after 80% of the main artery in her heart was blocked.
Lupus is an autoimmune disease in which the body’s immune system mistakes healthy tissues as foreign invaders and attacks them rather than targeting the bad bacteria and viruses.
It causes inflammation that can affect the joints, skin, kidneys, blood cells, brain, heart, and lungs.
As someone who’s been hospitalized “more times than I care to admit” from the disease, Braxton knows the importance of staying on top of routine urine and blood tests to assess how the lupus is affecting her organs.
However, she admits she slipped up last year.
“I kept putting it off thinking, ‘Oh, I’m fine. I’ll be okay.’ But my doctor was persistent and I went to get tested in the last week of September. I did a specialized test and they looked at my heart and saw some abnormalities,” “I found out that I needed a coronary stent. My left main coronary artery was 80% blocked. The doctors told me I could’ve had a massive heart attack, I would not have survived.”
“It was a traumatic moment for me. I was in shock,” she recalls. “I remember that day because my chest was aching often, just hurting. And I thought I was just sad because unfortunately my sister [Traci Braxton] had just passed and I thought, ‘Wow, I’m really aching in my heart for my sister.’ And come to find out, of course I was sad about my sister, but I also had underlying health issues. It was my body talking to me, telling me something’s not quite right.”
Two days after her screenings, Braxton had the emergency surgery and a stent — a tube that helps keep the passageway open — was inserted in her heart. The “Un-break My Heart” singer was hospitalized for a few days as she recovered.
Although she says reflecting on the experience makes her emotional, Braxton admits that she’s simply grateful the situation didn’t result in a fatal heart attack.
“It was really a scary moment,” the Grammy-winning artist says. “Had I not gotten that test, my life would’ve been different.”
“I look at it like it was a blessing in disguise for me because now, putting off tests? Oh no, I will not put off tests,” Braxton assures with a laugh. “If all I have to do for my lupus and my kidney health is pee in a cup, I can pee in a cup. How many times do you need me to pee? If all I gotta do is get my arm pricked for some blood? Oh yes, I can do that. How many vials do you need?”
The eye-opening health scare is, in part, why Braxton has partnered with Aurinia’s Get Uncomfortable campaign ahead of May’s Lupus Awareness Month.
The initiative works to encourage and empower people with lupus and lupus nephritis — a type of severe kidney disease caused by SLE — to “get uncomfortable” and prioritize their health by going to the doctor and completing routine testing to help prevent irreversible kidney damage, specifically women of color.
Braxton emphasizes that Black and Asian women are four times more likely to develop lupus nephritis and the risk of death is three times greater for people with it.
“It’s important to get those screenings — simple things,” she says. “The goal here is long life and old age.”
“I know we’re all scared sometimes to go to the doctor. Especially for me having lupus, I was scared, I didn’t want to know. But I find that knowing is empowering and it gets my doctors on top of my lupus and my kidney health. And that’s the most important thing,” the music star adds, noting that she now gets tested every three months.
After 15 years battling a disease that leaves her constantly dealing with heart and kidney complications, Braxton is dedicated to paying it forward with her advocacy work — raising awareness about lupus after all that she had to learn early in her battle.
“I remember when I first was diagnosed, I’d heard of lupus but I knew nothing about it. I didn’t know where to go, where to look, who to contact,” she explains. “Your doctors tell you about it, but it just sounds like Charlie Brown teacher talking, you know? Womp womp womp, like what are you saying? So I had to educate myself and it was a pretty scary moment for me.”
“I was also ashamed,” Braxton adds. “They made me feel ashamed. ‘Don’t tell anyone. You won’t be able to work. No one will hire you.’ And so now I’m an advocate for talking about it. It’s nothing to be ashamed of — kidney health, healthcare, lupus nephritis — it’s important to talk about it.”
Now six months after getting the stent placed in her heart, Braxton says she’s feeling good and taking her health journey day by day, praising her family whose support keeps her spirits up.
“There are good days and bad days,” the mom of two admits. “I’m going to be honest, sometimes the bad days get me down. I’m not superwoman. I like to think I am. I like to feel like I’m that boss b— all the time, but I’m also a human. When my body tells me to take it down and relax, I have to listen to it.”
“But I always try to be optimistic, “The glass is always half full.”