By Julie D. Andrews
April 23, 2009

Here's how she got up when chips were down.

Her stunning beauty has graced the cover of 500-plus glossy magazines. And back in 1974, Beverly Johnson blazed a trail as the first African American supermodel featured on the cover of Vogue. But, even supermodels have bad hair days, or worse, get struck down by illness.

At a routine OB/GYN visit in her 30s, Johnson discovered she had uterine fibroids, non-cancerous tumors of the uterus. "It was scary," says Johnson during New York City's Fashion Week. "Even though my doctor said it was common, I didn't tell anyone at first, not even my mom. I just couldn't bear saying the word ‘tumors' and having people think, ‘ohhh, she has cancer,' even when I knew it wasn't."

Fibroids affect 75 percent of women in the U.S., with African American women being three times more likely to develop the condition. The good news is that fibroids typically grow slowly and require no treatment. But for some women, the tumors expand, distorting the uterus and triggering side effects ranging from a mild feeling of fullness in the lower abdomen or frequent urination to heavy, painful periods or daily bleeding.

Symptoms Strike

At first, Johnson had no symptoms. By the time she hit her 40s, fibroids had taken over her life. "I had my period every day for a year! It was so heavy that I couldn't do the things I love. When I was playing golf, I'd have to jump into a cart and speed to the bathroom to avoid an embarrassing situation," says Johnson. "There was no more flying places, no modeling assignments. I was bleeding all the time and had severe cramps. There's no sex when you're getting up three times a night-it's too complicated! I felt like a prisoner."

Johnson's doctor recommended a hysterectomy (removal of the uterus and sometimes the ovaries) and after spending years coping with symptoms, she decided to have the surgery. "I was in pain and I just wanted my life back," she says. "But I didn't do the research. There are fibroid treatment options besides hysterectomy that I just didn't know about. Had I been brave, I would have studied up. And if my doctor wasn't thinking the way I was, I would have found someone else."

Post-Surgery Setbacks

Because Johnson's surgery included the removal of her ovaries, she went into menopause immediately and started experiencing hot flashes and other symptoms. "I remember saying to my doctor ‘I'm not supposed to have to deal with this now-I'm not 50 yet!,'" she says.

Over the next few months, the side effects worsened. "My hormones went haywire and my waist was thickening. I just didn't feel good," says Johnson. "My skin looked bad. I'd glance in the mirror and say, ‘Wait a minute. Who's that?' I didn't want to do anything, especially exercise."

Road to Recovery

Johnson spent five long years battling depression and regaining her health. "It was sheer determination that got me through this rough patch. Back when even walking was an effort, I couldn't even think about the gym," she says. "Finally, I hired a personal trainer-who I had to pay if I showed up or not! She really focused on fitness, not on crazy diets, and I liked that."

Johnson also found solace in meditation, which helped her stay calm and centered. "Working out helped me feel good about myself again," she says, "I started making better choices all around."

Back In the Game

Johnson's perseverance has paid off. She's just appeared on the "Tyra Banks" show in an episode paying tribute to African American models. And most mornings she can be found swinging her golf club on the greens, preparing for two upcoming tournaments. She's also working again, expanding her new cosmetics company and starring as a celebrity judge on the TV Land's "She's Got the Look." She's shown the world: nothing's going to keep Beverly Johnson down.

Learn more about uterine fibroids here: