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Cindy McCain Her Secret Agony

updated 09/14/2009 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/14/2009 01:00AM

On a recent Sunday morning, Cindy McCain woke up at 3 a.m., her head throbbing and sick to her stomach. Recognizing the signs of a migraine headache, the debilitating condition she has suffered for more than 15 years, she lay still in the darkness, hoping that it wouldn't be bad. Later that day the pain was so great, she checked herself into the ER, following her doctor's advice. "It feels like someone swung an axe and hit me in the forehead," she says.

Until now McCain, 55, has never spoken about her migraines. For years she kept their severity from her husband, Sen. John McCain, while he was in Washington during the week and she was in Phoenix with the kids. "I didn't want to trouble him," she says. "I didn't want it to spoil the weekend."

As one of 30 million Americans who get migraines (see box, p. 149), she's now come forward to raise awareness by speaking at the International Headache Congress on Sept. 10 in Philadelphia. McCain often has several attacks a month—and she is desperate for a cure. "There has to be something," she says, "that can stop this."

Her migraines started in her late 30s following a hysterectomy, which may have caused hormonal changes that can bring on the condition. At first McCain figured she was simply suffering bad headaches. She went to several doctors, but says they told her she was "overstressed." "It was scary," she says. "I thought my head was going to fall off. I didn't know what to do."

During an attack, she would lie down in a dark room with a pillow over her head. Yet nothing alleviated the accompanying nausea and dehydration, and she'd often wake up from a nap and throw up. Still, with her husband away and four kids under the age of 12 (Meghan, now 24, Jack, 23, Jimmy, 21, and Bridget, 18) at home, McCain did her best to press on. "At that age, the kids didn't understand why Mom can't go out," she says.

Finally diagnosed in 1995 by a neurologist, McCain didn't tell her husband about the extent of her migraines until 2000. The senator says he now knows that his wife didn't want to be a "burden on the family" and calls her brave. "The migraines will knock her down, but she bounces right back," he says.

McCain found some relief using triptans, a class of drug that stops the blood vessel spasms that set off the pain. She researched the medication thoroughly—in 1992 she had kicked a three-year addiction to Percocet and Vicodin (originally prescribed after back troubles). "I'm careful with everything," McCain says now. The medication doesn't always help, but after a stroke in 2004 and gaining back some of the weight she lost during the stressful campaign, she's trying to shed her perfectionism. "I think I've changed. You can't do everything," she says. "Now I take time to enjoy life."

FOR MORE ON CINDY MCCAIN, GO TO PEOPLE.COM/MCCAINSTORY

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