MS Awareness Week, March 11-17

     Spring has been a favorite season of mine for as long as I can remember, but it has taken on new meanings in recent years. March doesn’t just mark the start of spring, but the MS Association of America declares it “MS Education and Awareness Month.” Since a June 1997 diagnosis, every month has fallen into this category for me. Along the same lines, The National MS Society declares “MS Awareness week” to be March 10-17.

     So what is MS anyhow, and why do we need to be aware? Valid questions. Multiple Sclerosis is an autoimmune disease, meaning that the immune system, which usually attacks things that make us sick, is misbehaving. With MS, the immune system attacks the coating of the nerves, a fatty substance called myelin. Imagine that your nerves are electric wires, and the myelin is the protective rubber coating around the said wires. Then the renegade white blood cells snip away at parts of that myelin “rubber coating.” When a power cord has this type of damage, it can cause a short circuit. Lights may flicker or sparks may fly, depending where the power was headed. Your biggest bundle of nerves is one that you use whether or not you’re thinking about it; you need it in order to think, in fact. The brain is, essentially, a huge, organized bundle of nerves. For an MS-laden immune system, the brain acts as the main target.

This leads to the reason for the name, “Multiple Sclerosis.” Multiple means many, and Sclerosis refers to scars. What happens when the myelin is stripped away? Scars, or lesions, are left behind. Where? The brain, of course. And this leads to that need for “awareness.” You see, the brain is responsible for quite a bit. Imagine if your home had shorts in the wiring at various spots. More than just flickering lights, your doorbell may not work, the furnace may fluctuate, your computer may flash new error messages, and the electrician would have quite a job in store. Scars in the brain can act this way also, affecting mobility, energy, balance, heat sensitivity, vision, speech, memory, and so much more. A few shorts may only affect the lights in the attic, and a person with MS may not experience very many symptoms. But one trait these both share is the same: unpredictability. What symptoms will strike when?

Do you know people who face MS? Whether or not you realize it, you likely do. Eighteen years ago, just a few weeks before we moved to a new home, I discovered that our next-door neighbor had MS. We had lived there for two years, and I had not realized this, as it was “invisible” in many ways. In the United States, it is estimated that 250-350,000 individuals in the USA currently face MS, about two thirds of these female. A person with MS may experience all or only a few of the symptoms mentioned earlier, and this may change. MS symptoms can come and go, and they aren’t very predictable, though they often become worse during stressful times or in hot weather.

So what to do? The good news is that although we had zero medications to fight MS twenty years ago, there are currently sixteen available. A cure remains elusive, but we keep coming closer. Medicine can help slow progression, and more answers are found each day. There isn’t a single, clear cause for the onset of MS, and there likely won’t be a single, clear cure, but continued research and awareness of this disease and its effects is key.

Summer used to be a much-loved season also, but MS has caused me to shift, as my body just can’t tolerate heat. I do adore new life that begins showing itself in spring, and my hope and prayer is that this “MS Awareness Month,” we can gain understanding of these hidden scars that affect our friends and neighbors with MS. As spring progresses, we can know that each day brings us closer to a cure.


You may also read this article in the “SEG-WAY News” of Grant County, Indiana, published March 9, 2018

MS Awareness and Ivanhoe’s shakes

ms awareness weekI composed the following article for our small local paper, and it’s an updated version of my 2011 piece. I think this milkshake analogy is my favorite way to explain how MS doesn’t always look the same. 



MS Awareness Week, March 5-11

           As spring nears, March again brings “MS Awareness Week.”   I find this interesting, as I experience 52 of these each year, but is nice that a bit of time is set aside to share information with others.  Over 400,000 individuals in the United States face this challenge, so this week offers the chance to shine a light on information that may be new… or misunderstood.

As our friend “G. I. Joe” used to say at the end of each cartoon in the 80s, “Knowing is half the battle.”  Knowing what MS is – and what it isn’t – is helpful in gaining an understanding of this illness.  So what is multiple sclerosis?  It is an autoimmune disorder, meaning that the otherwise helpful immune system is affecting something it shouldn’t.  In this case, the white blood cells are attacking several (multiple) places on the coating of the nerves.  These attacks create scars (sclerosis).  Sounds simple, doesn’t it?  Not so fast.  Consider the nerves that run through the body, not to mention the large bundle of nerve tissue that we call the brain.  In fact, using MRI technology, scars viewed in the brain often lead to a diagnosis of MS.

ivanhoe shakes            If it is anything, MS is unpredictable.  Scientists are still uncertain as to the initial cause of this disease, there is not a certain pattern that it always follows, and it can vary widely from one individual to another.  The best area analogy I have found is the menu of Upland’s Ivanhoe’s restaurant.  Hoe’s is largely known for its 100 varieties of shakes and sundaes, and MS can vary just as much, if not more.  Some are diagnosed and may have a “vanilla acapella,” with no additional or noticeable symptoms after the initial onset.  Others, though, experience a shake not even on the menu, with ingredients they never liked to start with.  Symptoms can include fatigue, loss of coordination, heat sensitivity, slurred speech, cognitive problems… and I’ll stop there, as this is a bit disheartening.

Besides knowing what MS is, it is equally important that we realize what it isn’t.  MS is not a death sentence: though chronic, it is not fatal.  MS is also not the sign that somebody has lost his or her ability to be productive.  Every individual, like those beloved gourmet shakes, is different.  The last two homes where we lived had us next door to an individual with MS, something I certainly didn’t realize at first.  You see, MS is not obvious.  Two thirds of those diagnosed with multiple sclerosis are female, but this means that many are also male.  MS is also not age-specific.  A few are diagnosed as young as six, some in their 50s or 60s, but many in their 20s or 30s.  Many are from Western European ancestry, but this also varies.  And about a fourth of those with MS end in a wheelchair, but three fourths do not.

So why should we be aware?  More and more medical breakthroughs are on the horizon.  There are currently fourteen medications on the market to help slow MS progression, and a cure is closer each day.  In the meantime, patience and understanding are key in helping support our friends and neighbors with MS.  Now you know, and though simply knowing may not be half the battle, it is certainly a step in the right direction.

Angie Knight was diagnosed with MS in 1997 and lives with her husband and daughters in Upland. Visit her “Invisible Issues” blog at https://angieknight.wordpress.com .

So what exactly does MS look like?

Angie MRI 2006

This is actually a slide from my lovely MRI brain photo shoot in spring 2006. Brighter spots are the new active scars. 

…This is like asking what a March day in Indiana looks like. The answers will change from day to day, sometimes minute to minute. One MS descriptor I appreciate is “unpredictable” – scars in the brain can do funny things, and misfiring nerves can be quite disconcerting. I appreciate the image of this posted by MS Lifelines. Ten common symptoms were highlighted here, and I’ll focus on the few that affect me most (I understand these most clearly).

 

  • Cognitive issues: Words sometimes fail me, and I will forget things… it’s hard to tell what is MS and what isn’t, but these issues are frustrating. My thoughts also seem to process more slowly. (This definitely affects the games I choose to play!)
  • Vision: my  eyesight is already poor, but MS scars on the optic nerves sometimes keep my eyes from cooperating. My left eye likes to wander, ignoring messages from the right. In fact, my first symptom in April and May of 1997 was “optic neuritis,” and scarring on the optic nerve led to uncomfortable eye issues that stopped before I knew where they had come from.
  • Fatigue: This isn’t just a case of “I think I’m a bit tired,” but true weariness that strikes. A nap can help, but the need for a mid-day nap can be frustrating, I must admit. The analogy I often use is that of a battery. Most folks start the day with two fully-charged D batteries (8-year-olds may have three), while I have a single AA or AAA size. And on some days, I’m convinced that many have Duracell, while I have the off-brand battery that had been forgotten at the bottom of the drawer.
  • Strength and coordination: This is why people with MS are sometimes mistaken as inebriated. Walking in a straight line is more difficult than one may think! Personally, when my feet and legs stopped moving where my mind was telling them to, I agreed wholeheartedly that I was not going to drive. (Hand controls would not be a good option for me either, as my hands become flakey when my feet also stop cooperating. Not helpful.) I also used to play piano… no, I haven’t “given up,” but accepting the fact that my hands will not move in a detailed, coordinated, practiced method is a truth that I face.

If you care to watch a short video answering the MS questions, the MS Society has a nice one here:

March is MS Awareness and Education Month, but this week is specifically MS Awareness Week.On Friday, I’ll post here the op-ed piece I submitted to our local paper, the SEGway news (for South Eastern Grant County). It is a little more lighthearted than this MS laundry list of sorts. Did you know that MS is like an Ivanhoe’s shake? Visit back in a few days to see how.

Marching into Awareness

AngiewalkerAh, the month of March. For the past several years, I have been highlighting MS Awareness Month, wearing my “teacher” hat as I explain what MS is (and isn’t). This also gives me the opportunity to more openly share personal struggles of living with multiple sclerosis.

You may (or may not) have noticed something about this blog during March 2016. What was there to notice, you wonder… it seemed rather absent. The irony of last year’s “Awareness Month” is that I was more aware of my confused nervous system/immune system than I had been in the previous eighteen years. After thinking it was a dental issue that caused my mouth to feel as if was being attacked by scads of tiny, flaming pitchforks any time I tried to speak, swallow, and eat, a series of tests and MRI scans led us to the discovery that a major nerve in my tongue was quite confused. I didn’t have a cavity or worse, but the diagnosis came: “hyposlossal neuralgia.” In essence, the main nerve on the left side of my tongue, allowing me to speak and swallow and such, had a short circuit of sorts.

They say that “knowing is half the battle,” but what I really wanted to know was how to function decently despite the uncooperative tongue. For almost a month, we tried different medications to help tame the crazy nerve. The craziest part of the struggle came when medication that tamed the tongue also took away the ability for my legs to move. At all. Because I appreciate the ability to do such things as go to the restroom, this was not appreciated. So… by April, things were tamed enough. But MS Awareness Month had completely passed me by. And I had visited doctor offices and MRI machines in three different cities, very aware of MS.

So that was 2016. 2017 holds different challenges and paths, as my tongue is tamed. Usually, at least. My point here: MS is unpredictable, and those who live with it are “aware,” no matter what month it is. Over the next week or so, I will be sharing about MS in general. I’ll also share about March’s other campaign, “Disability Awareness Month.” My own journey into and through the world of MS and disability is just one story, and I hope to shine a little light to increase awareness for us all.