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Michael J. Fox reveals scariest moment of risky surgery in 'No Time Like the Future'

Three images are visible on the wall behind Michael J. Fox as he sits in his New York City office during a Zoom call.

One is a photo of the star embracing his wife of 32 years, Tracy Pollan. Another is a painting by his 25-year-old daughter, Schuyler, of a stone arch in Utah. And the third is a portrait of the actor's rescue dog, Gus.

"That's the wonder dog," Fox quips before his wife asks off-camera whether Gus can come in and say hi. It's not long before the black-and-white mutt lumbers into the office with a smiling Pollan beside him.

"I didn't rescue Gus," Fox, 59, writes in "No Time Like the Future: An Optimist Considers Mortality," his latest memoir, out Nov. 17. "You can argue that he rescued me, but he'd be too modest to make that claim."

This is the beloved canine who, along with Fox's wife and four adult kids, supported the actor as he recovered from a risky spinal surgery in 2018 that forced him to relearn how to walk, as well as a devastating fall shortly after that left the "Back to the Future" star stranded on his kitchen floor with a broken arm.

In "No Time Like the Future: An Optimist Considers Mortality," out Nov. 17, Michael J. Fox details his harrowing recovering from spinal surgery, insights from his ongoing battle with Parkinson's as well as his return to positivity after, quite literally, falling into despair.

"I was lying on the floor in my kitchen with a shattered arm waiting for the ambulance to show up," Fox tells USA TODAY. "I kind of went, 'What an idiot. All this time you've been telling everybody to be optimistic, chin-up, and you're miserable now. There's nothing but pain and regret. There's no way to put a shine on this.'"

It's this fall that kicks off Fox's book, in which the actor goes on to detail his harrowing recovery from spinal surgery, insights from his battle with Parkinson's disease and his return to positivity after, quite literally, falling into despair.

"That was a real breakthrough moment for me, because I realized that I've been selling that optimism to people for so long," he continues. "I believe it's true to my core, but it struck me that at that point I questioned it, and I questioned it really severely. And so the rest of the book is this journey through finding my way back with gratitude. And I think gratitude is what makes optimism sustainable."

Fox didn't know what health challenges awaited him when he first started writing "No Time Like the Future," which he originally intended to be about discovering his love of golf in middle age, decades after being diagnosed with Parkinson's at age 29.

That plan changed when the actor learned he had a tumor on his spine, which, left untreated, could cause him to lose feeling in his legs. A surgery to remove it also carried risk: The slightest of errors and Fox could have woken up paralyzed.

Of all the trials detailed in his book, Fox says waiting for this surgery was the scariest.

"I had this fear of waking up and my life being severely different," he says. "A lot of surgeons didn't want to touch it, because it just seemed like a no-win. It was very risky."

Despite conflicting advice from medical professionals, Fox decided to have the surgery and even used his sense of humor to help him pick the person for the job.

Michael J. Fox says tumor almost had him 'heading for paralysis,' reflects on his 'darkest moment'

"I said, 'You know, a lot of doctors don't want to do this.'" Fox recalls of his meeting with Dr. Nicholas Theodore, director of the Neurosurgical Spine Center at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. "And he said, 'I understand why.' And then he leaned in and he said, 'Who wants to be the one who paralyzes Michael J. Fox?' And I said, 'If you have the balls to say that to me, you're gonna need to be my surgeon.' "

Despite the dark situations in his book, Fox never loses his sense humor, something the actor says he and his wife have used to cope with challenges throughout their marriage.

"We deal with what's funny in the situation at first," Fox says. "We laugh about it and then we deal with it. But always humor. Humor is the filter for everything."

Through his recovery, falling and then needing to recover again, Fox says he realized the importance of being realistic while still optimistic. In fact, the actor says acknowledging bleak realities is the first step to improving your state of mind.

"I think the first thing you have to do is accept if you're faced with a difficult situation," he says. "And once I do that, that doesn't mean I can't ever change it. I can change it, but I have to accept it for what it is first, before I can change it. And I have to be real about it. And once I do that, then it opens all doors."

Michael J. Fox and his wife, actress Tracy Pollan, are pictured here at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 30, 2019.

It's a message he hopes resonates with Americans in the midst of an ongoing pandemic and a political climate that feels increasingly divided. After all, as Fox learned after his fall, "life gets better the more you decide to take it easy on yourself."

"Just give yourself a break, and, by that token, give the people in your life a break," he adds. "Give your neighbor a break. Give the person who bags your groceries a break. Just give everybody a break. Give them the benefit of the doubt and move on."

Since the surgery, Fox gets his spine monitored twice a year. His arm has healed, and the tumor shows no signs of coming back. 

And, if the book does well, Fox jokes there may be a place for Gus' visage on more than just his office wall.

"We'll see how the book does," Fox says when asked if it's true he'll get a tattoo of Gus, something the actor alludes to in his book's acknowledgements section. Fox surprised fans in January 2019 when he showed off his first tattoo at age 57 after his tumultuous 2018.

"If there's reason to celebrate, then, yeah, I think I will," he says before holding up the sea turtle on his right forearm to the webcam. "I just need to talk Tracy into it. She wasn't a big fan of this one."

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