The big lesson Suze Orman learned from her recent health scare

The New York Times best-selling author and personal finance expert had emergency surgery in July for a tumor on her spinal cord.
Three days after spinal surgery, Suze Orman was walking with a walker.
Three days after spinal surgery, Suze Orman was walking with a walker.Kathy Travis
/ Source: CNBC

Suze Orman didn’t take her own advice, at least when it came to her health.

The New York Times best-selling author and personal finance expert had emergency surgery in July for a tumor on her spinal cord, after ignoring some troubling signs for several months prior.

“With money, the reason we don’t do the things we know we need to do is because we are afraid,” Orman said. “We are afraid of making mistakes.

“I was in that mode, but with my health,” added Orman, who is 69 and said she “should have known better.”

Orman’s medical issues actually started with a nagging cough several years ago. After being treated for reflux and having surgery, she thought she was in the clear. Yet her coughing and esophageal spasms came back.

Suze Orman spoke with her doctors before heading into the operating room for spinal surgery in July 2020.Kathy Travis

“But it is hard to face your greatest fears in life.”

Then, last October, she had trouble walking up five steps onto the stage for a PBS special in Miami.

“I notice when I’m walking up the steps, I can’t walk up the steps without pulling myself up,” said Orman, who hosts the podcast, “Women and Money.”

“My right leg was too weak to hold myself going up steps.”

After she had more trouble with her leg, she went to a doctor, who told her she just overextended her knee. When the problems persisted, she was told to go for an MRI. But life got busy. In February, her latest book, “The Ultimate Retirement Guide for 50+” came out and she went on her book tour.

“I’m barreling through it and I’m not paying a lot of attention, although when I walk up a lot of stairs, I have to pull myself up,” she said.

Then, the tour wrapped up and the coronavirus pandemic hit. Orman was at her home in the Bahamas with her wife, Kathy “KT” Travis, and wasn’t going to travel back to Florida for the MRI.

“I notice that my right leg is getting thinner than my left leg,” Orman said. “Then my thumb and my index finger on the right hand start to go numb.”

Her doctors told her it was likely carpal tunnel syndrome, she said.

Suze Orman leaving the hospital in July 2020, after surgery to remove a tumor from her spine.Kathy Travis

When she had trouble writing, and eating — even dropping her fork, she reached out to her general practitioner. He looked at all of her problems, which she had addressed with various specialists, and insisted she come back to Florida for MRIs of her upper body.

“Here’s where self-denial will literally kill you,” Orman said. “I didn’t want what I thought was wrong.

“I’m like, I don’t want a brain tumor,” she said. “I don’t want that. I want it to be something else.”

She also had a prescription for an MRI of her lower body from the specialist dealing with her leg problems. She returned to Florida in early July, but she couldn’t get them all done at once — so she opted for the lower MRI. Nothing showed up and she returned to the Bahamas.

“Now, KT is really upset because my entire back of my leg and everything — I’m totally atrophied,” Orman recalled.

At Travis’ request, she returned for the MRIs of her upper body on July 20. The doctor told her right then and there that they found something that wasn’t good.

“It was at that moment that I snapped into reality,” she said.

Her doctor told her that 80% of her spinal cord had been cut off by a non-cancerous tumor between C1 and C3, which is located in the neck. It had been slowly growing there for about 15 years.

“He said, ‘This is serious … You have got to get a neurosurgeon and you’ve got to do it right away,’” Orman said.

Within days, she was at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital having the tumor removed. Surgery was successful, with the entire mass removed, along with two discs that were replaced with titanium.

These days, she is recuperating in the Bahamas, after spending a few weeks of post-surgery in Florida. All of her problems, including her coughing and spasming, have gone away.

The experience has made her double down on her financial advice.

“You have to face your fears,” said Orman. “Fear, shame and anger are the three things that keep you from having more.

“I knew something was wrong and I wanted to believe the doctors that didn’t give me the correct advice because I wanted them to be right,” she added.

What she went through also highlights the importance of having all of your necessarily medical and legal documents in shape, like a will, plus a living will or advance directive, a revocable trust, financial power of attorney and durable power of attorney for health care.

Orman calls them must-have documents.

“You have to understand the ramifications of when you don’t have those documents,” she said.

Her experience also drives home the importance of having an emergency fund, especially during the coronavirus pandemic. After about two months of recovery, Orman just started going back to work.

“If I had to go into an office or do anything physical, no way,” she said.

She recommends an eight-month emergency fund, which is more important than getting out of credit card debt right now. Once things go back to normal, then you can concentrate on getting out of debt, she said.

In the end, Orman is trying to stay positive.

“I love doing my podcasts,” she said. “That is my world right now.

“It’s a very different world than I’ve had prior to this.”

Disclosure: Invest in You: Ready. Set. Grow. is a financial wellness and education initiative from CNBC and Acorns, the micro-investing app. NBCUniversal and Comcast Ventures are investors in Acorns.

This story originally appeared on CNBC.