March is nearing its end, and when I wrote this editorial a couple of weeks ago, I never would have imagined that our “spring” would bring snow days – and almost a foot of snow the first Monday of spring break. Wow! In this way, I suppose MS is a little like Indiana weather. There may be an expected forecast, but unpredictability reigns.
The editorial will appear later this week in our small, local newspaper. In the MS article published two years ago, I compared MS to an Ivanhoe’s shake, so this year I thought I’d use a different analogy, the “myelin as an electric wire protector” one. (Two days after I wrote this piece, I saw Dr. Oz use the same example. I don’t normally view his show, but I was watching an interview with Meredith Vieira and Richard Cohen. And what a lovely interview it was!)
So without further ado, here we have it:
MS Awareness Month
Spring has been a season I have favored 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 it has also been declared “MS Awareness Month.” Since a June 1997 diagnosis, every month has fallen into this category for me.
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 darken, depending where the electricity 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 seems to be 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 that the cause of the problem cannot easily be seen.
Do you know people who face MS? Whether or not you realize it, you likely do. Fourteen years ago, just a few weeks before we moved, I discovered that our next door neighbor had MS. I had not realized this, as it was “invisible” in many ways. In the United States, 400,000 individuals 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 there were zero medications to fight MS twenty years ago, there are currently nine available. There isn’t a cure, but we are so much closer than we were. 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 are key.
Summer used to be my very favorite season, but MS has pushed me to shift, as my body just can’t tolerate heat. I do adore new life that begins showing its intentions 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 we’re each day brings us closer to a cure.