About six months ago, my childhood friend Sarah told me that she had just been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS). Before that, I thought I never knew anyone who had MS, an autoimmune disease that works to destroy the myelin sheath that insulates neurons in the brain and spinal cord. Well, turns out that my friend Terri has had MS for years and never even mentioned it. And now that I’m in rehab for my newly replaced hip, I’m meeting lots of people who also have MS and are doing just fine. So there goes my assumption that MS automatically robs your mobility and that all people affected are destined to be wheelchair bound. Some of my fellow rehabbers claim, in fact, that MS will have little or no impact on their life expectancy. And, just like everyone else, if they follow the basic principles for sound living and take good care of their hearts, brains and bodies, as we all must do, they expect to live long, healthy and productive lives.
Case in point: Clay Walker, a country boy at heart who has overcome small town roots and humble beginnings to become a bona fide country music star, selling over 11 million albums, belting out 11 number one hit singles, and racking up a suitcase full of platinum and gold albums. But at just 26 years old, Clay’s dream took a dramatic turn when his own life started to mirror the emotionally moving and personally inspiring lyrics typically found in any classic country music song.
“I was on tour in the mid-90s when I started to experience this tingling and numbness on the right side of my body, as well as facial spasms. I couldn’t even hold a guitar pick in my hands. I knew that something was really wrong,” says Walker.
After a battery of tests, Clay was diagnosed with relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis—or RRMS—the most common form of multiple sclerosis. RRMS tends to be two to three times more common in women, typically striking during child-bearing years, but, in general, it may be more severe in men.
Clay’s diagnosis came at a pivotal time in his life; his career in country music was exploding, he had recently finished recording his fourth album and his oldest daughter had just been born. “I wondered, ‘why me?’ I should have been on top of the world, but instead my life seemed to be crumbling around me.”
It took Clay almost a year of strategizing with his neurologist to find a routine that worked for him. That routine now includes moderate exercise—including biking, lifting weights and using the elliptical machine—several times a week. He and his family have adopted a low-fat, high-fiber die—fish, rice and fresh vegetables from his 200-acre organic garden are household staples. And, he takes his medication daily.
“RRMS can be so unpredictable—symptoms tend to come and go, making it really tricky to manage sometimes,” he says. “But, when I found my groove, I decided to stick with it. I’ve never looked back.”
Gabriel Pardo, M.D., Director of the OMRF Multiple Sclerosis Center of Excellence, adds, “The challenge is that in between relapses, patients with RRMS might not have any apparent symptoms or might even improve. Therefore, they often ‘feel’ better and opt to go off their medication. But clinical studies showed that patients who had gaps in therapy lasting 90 or less days were nearly twice as likely to experience a severe relapse, so it’s important for them to find a routine that works and stay adherent.”
“The complexity of MS can be problematic because it manifests symptomatically in so many different ways,” says New York City psychotherapist Pat Brody, who has been dealing with her own MS for more than two decades. “And it therefore can be quite frightening. However, the very positive news is that the treatments that have come out in recent years have proved to be extremely effective in delaying the progression. Although MS can’t be cured, the symptoms can be well managed. By using a combination of medical, mental, physical as well as spiritual approaches, a patient’s quality of life, though affected, does not have to become diminished and can, in fact, continue to be quite gratifying.”
Now relapse-free for more than 15 years, Clay credits his routine and positive outlook for a good prognosis. In honor of Multiple Sclerosis Awareness Week (March 11-17), he is spearheading Stick With It, a national public service announcement campaign to help educate RRMS patients about the importance of working with a neurologist to find a groove that works and stick with it. You can check it out on Facebook. For every action the public takes to promote awareness, including liking the Facebook page or sharing their favorite Stick With It routine, Teva Pharmaceuticals will make a $1 corporate donation to Clay’s charity Band Against MS to help fund vital MS research (up to $25,000). In addition to supporting a worthy cause, the public can access helpful information including questions to ask your doctor and background on the importance of adhering to a routine to manage RRMS.