I 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.
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 .