The following has been submitted for publication in our local newspaper, as I try to help others understand more about this “MS thing” that is a big part of my life.
“Why do you need a cane? Did you hurt yourself?” This question used to be asked of me quite frequently, particularly when I was visiting my daughters’ school. Our twins were in preschool when I began using the cane regularly, and I had many chats with curious students over the following seven years. The questions changed, though, as time trudged on. For the past two years, young questioners have been a little more confused, “What is that thing with wheels, and what is it for?”
Depending on the audience, my response shares some version of this information:
a. A cane (or walker) helps me so that I don’t fall. (the concrete/carpet/pavement isn’t very tasty.)
b. On some days, my legs don’t like doing what my mind wants them to do. This helps them.
c. This thing called “MS” fights and makes my body uncooperative. I’m not going to let it win.
For those who are really interested, I give a little lesson about what MS is. Multiple Sclerosis actually means “Many Scars,” and these scars are in the nervous system. The brain is our biggest bundle of nerves, and that’s where lots of these scars can be seen by machines (MRI in particular). What makes the scars form, you ask? This is where things get tricky. Our bodies do a fantastic job fighting nasty things that try to invade. The immune system has armies of helpful white blood cells that attack germs, keeping the body healthy. So what’s the problem? MS, you see, tells those cells to fight against myelin, the coating of the nerves (and an important part of brain tissue). So when white cells attack this coating, they leave scars. Each part of the brain is responsible for doing very specific jobs, so you can imagine how little, unwanted bits of scar tissue can affect the brain, reaching into many parts of life.
March is MS Awareness Month, so this is a good time for somebody like me to share more than just an elementary-level lesson about the science of multiple sclerosis. Currently, the National Institute of Health estimates that between 250,000 and 350,000 people in the United States have MS, and about 200 new cases diagnosed each week. So I am not alone; in fact, you likely have a neighbor who has MS. This is what is often thought of as an “invisible” disability, as many of the symptoms simply cannot be seen from the outside. I use a walker now, but I didn’t begin using a cane until seven years after this journey began.
Even though symptoms are not easily visible, they are very real. As Awareness month continues, here are a few MS facts to help you understand the disease*:
- MS is not contagious.
- MS is usually diagnosed between ages 20 and 40.
- Among young adults, it is the most common illness of the Central Nervous System.
- MS is not hereditary, but there can be genetic susceptibilities.
- MS does not have a significant effect on life span.
- Fatigue is the most common symptom of MS. Others include loss of coordination, vision problems, and memory issues.
- MS is a progressive disease, and there is no cure. But there are therapies that can greatly reduce disease progression.
- Current research is leading to new possibilities for more effective treatment. Each day, a cure is closer!
March is a month when we can focus on awareness of those in our community who face disabilities, some visible and some not. Let’s use that awareness to encourage and spread kindness to our neighbors.
Angie Knight lives in Upland and was diagnosed with MS in 1997.
*sources: Multiple Sclerosis Foundation, National Institute of Health , and National MS Society.
If you would like to see similar MS Awareness Month posts from previous years, I’ll link to those below. I try to approach the topic a little differently each time… I think the milkshake one a few years ago was my favorite.
2013 – how the nervous system is like an electrical system… and why those scars are problematic
2011 – my favorite – how MS is like an Ivanhoe’s shake
2010 – letter to the editor about MS Awareness
I will try to post weekly during March with my thought of news and happenings related to MS and the disability in general. Stay tuned!