Spread Some Sunshine For MS Awareness Month

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March is half over and MS Awareness month is in full swing. We’ve come a long way in helping people understand the difference between multiple sclerosis (MS) and the disease known for “Jerry’s Kids.” I have to admit, I even made that mistake when I was first diagnosed.

Lying there in the hospital bed, feeling vulnerable in the one-size-fits-nobody cotton gown, I listened as my doctor broke the news in his most apologetic tone.

“I can’t say for sure, but it’s possible you have multiple sclerosis,” he stammered.

“You mean like that disease with the telethon?” I asked.

“No, you’re confusing MS with muscular dystrophy,” he corrected me. But that was all I got. No literature or other helpful information that might explain it further.

So here I am, fifteen years later, reflecting on what has changed. Granted, it seems less folks are making that mistake, but we’re a far cry from the level of “awareness” needed to make MS a household word. Wouldn’t it be nice to see medical breakthroughs in MS as part of your typical nightly news program?

Maybe all MS needs is a good PR campaign. That’s where we who are living with it come in, sharing the importance of our cause and getting folks to pay attention.

But how do we go about affecting this change? How can you and I raise awareness so that the words “multiple sclerosis” roll easily off the tongues of healthy people? It takes communication on every level and that should start at home.

Don’t be overwhelmed thinking you have to have a grand plan or platform, or that your voice doesn’t matter. Every voice matters! And I’ve got a simple plan for spreading MS Awareness:

  1. Learn: You can’t explain MS to someone else until you are comfortable that you, yourself know what it is. So learn all you can.
  2. Simplify: If you’re trying to explain how MS affects you, do it with analogies. I always compare my nervous system to an old lamp and MS has caused its cord to fray. My brain flickers just like the light when the signals can’t get through. Depending on where it’s frayed, my symptoms will vary.
  3. Express yourself: Don’t think you have to be a writer, speaker, or artist to share what you know about MS. Use your own unique talents. If you like to bake, make cookies with “MS” written in frosting for a conversation starter. Maybe you’re into woodworking, so make a wallhanging or mailbox with an MS theme. Like to sew or make jewelry? Design your own MS emblems and add them to your ensemble in order to spark interest. Everyone has some gift to give to the MS awareness campaign.
  4. Get Social: The internet is a tool of empowerment. Share awareness graphics with your friends on Facebook.  MSAA_month_badge3Tweet links to Awareness fundraisers and events on Twitter. Create a video to help the newly diagnosed understand it’s not the end of the world.  Remember to use hashtag #MSAwareness when posting on social media.
  5. Reach out: Mother Teresa knew what she was talking about when she said “Never worry about numbers. Help one person at a time and always start with the person nearest you.” That’s the best advice I ever heard, after all, she made a difference, right? Start with family and friends and before you know it, you are telling the produce manager at the grocery store all about MS.

Think of awareness as sunshine. Every time we spread our MS message, sharing the need for research and funding, we shine a little more light on our cause–and our future looks that much brighter.

References:

http://www.healthline.com/health/multiple-sclerosis/youve-got-this

Credit:

Hope for a Cure” illustration by Jeri Burtchell

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Did Cupid Miss? Finding True Love Wherever it Lies

By: Jeri Burtchell

Ah, February! The prelude to spring and the time of year when happy couples profess their love for one another on Valentine’s Day. What could be wrong with that?

Well, sometimes real life falls short of “Sleepless in Seattle”. A study published in 2010 says that folks with MS have a greater likelihood of ending up divorced than other couples. Odds are, someone with MS who is reading this spent Valentine’s Day alone. No amount of chocolate can make that pill any less bitter to swallow.

When I learned the MSAA blog theme for February would be “love”, I decided to explore the less traveled paths to the heart. Instead of romantic love, this is for all of you who are facing MS head-on and doing it solo. For everyone who thinks the groundhog predicted six more weeks of loneliness.

Everywhere you look in early February, friends are doting on their better halves in tweets and status updates. Pictures of happy couples abound. Even those with MS seem happily connected to the “best husband ever” or “the most amazing wife.” You don’t see anyone saying “I’m single, yay me! I’m doing just fine.”

But there is love beyond romance and I want to draw your eye to it. If you focus on the love that you do have, then perhaps it will ease the sting of having to say “table for one, please.”

Most of us have the love of family that surrounds us. Think about that sister or brother, mother or father, aunt or uncle who is there for you. Helping you cope, caring how you feel, sharing good times and bad. That is love.

Even if you are divorced, there’s a good chance you have kids. They love you, right? Don’t roll your eyes at me that way. Romantic love may come and go, but the bond between parent and child will last a lifetime. That is also love.

No kids, no family, no significant other? Don’t stop looking for the love that seems elusive. Just look a little closer. You may be overlooking a love right under your nose. Literally. Look down. See some little eyes in a furry face looking back up? That, my friend, is love…or it could be hunger. (Nah, it’s probably love).

The unconditional love of a pet is real and powerful. Besides love, the Centers for Disease Control says that having a pet can lower our blood pressure and triglyceride levels, plus chase away our loneliness. They also give us a reason to exercise and opportunities to socialize while we’re at it. Just ask Sheryl about her Teeny Tiny Mighty MS Mascot.

What’s that you say? You have no family, no close friends? Your kids are grown and gone? You’re allergic to pets? All hope is not lost. The camaraderie of an online community may fill the emptiness you feel. Reach out and connect. Meeting others with MS can be rewarding, reassuring and often leads to lifelong friendships. I can honestly say some of the most meaningful friendships I have now began online.

Last but not least, there’s one final love you’ve had by your side all along, although you may have never noticed. You overlooked it while you were pursuing Prince Charming or Mrs. Right. It’s the person who will be by your side through thick and thin no matter what. It’s you.

When you learn to be your own best friend you’ll never be alone. Explore hobbies that give you satisfaction. Read books, go jogging, take a bubble bath, buy yourself a little something. When you see that gorgeous sunset, your first thought won’t be “Oh, if only I had someone to share it with.” Don’t gauge the pleasure of the moment by someone else’s reaction. It’s okay to love the sunset all by yourself.

So if February isn’t your favorite month and all this lovey-dovey stuff your friends are sharing gets you down, just try to focus on all the other love that surrounds you. And cheer up! March is just around the corner and we can soon celebrate MS Awareness Month together.

My parting shot to the romance of February as it heads out the door is, “Yay me! I’m doing just fine.”

References:

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20483882

http://www.cdc.gov/healthypets/health_benefits.htm

http://contributors.healthline.com/family/my-teeny-tiny-mighty-ms-mascot

*Jeri Burtchell was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1999. She has spoken from a patient perspective at conferences around the country, addressing social media and the role it plays in designing clinical trials. Jeri is a MS blogger, patient activist, and freelance writer for the MS News Beat of Healthline.com. She lives in northeast Florida with her youngest son and elderly mother. When not writing or speaking, she enjoys crafting and photography.

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I’ll Meet You on the Internet: Social Media is the New Support Group

By: Jeri Burtchell 

When I was young, I would roll my eyes whenever Dad began a sentence with “back in my day.” Whatever he was about to reveal was sure to be irrelevant now. Times change and one generation’s “cutting edge” becomes passé to the next. And now, when I reflect on my early life with MS, I find myself sounding just like my dad.

Back in my day, Jeris blogwhen I was diagnosed in 1999, I didn’t have a computer, let alone internet. If I wanted to find out about my condition, I had to go to see my neurologist. Who else had the answers? There was no Google to ask, no “Web MD” to consult about symptoms.

Back in my day, if you wanted to connect, you went to a real support group and talked to one another face to face. We weren’t sitting in front of glowing screens connected to typewriters, pouring our souls out to faceless strangers. I would have laughed at such a prediction much the same way my grandparents would have reacted to the concept of television.

With every new iPhone release or tablet launch, technology is evolving, redefining our relationships and how we interact. In a way, I am melancholy for a time when “social” meant playing board games or telling stories round the campfire. Not to worry, though, no doubt there’s an app for that.

But then I consider how the internet has empowered the chronically ill, and technology is easily forgiven for its domineering takeover of everyday life. Housebound no longer means isolated. Loneliness is banished by the wi-fi connection.

From blog posts like this, to message boards, to Twitter and Facebook, we are all interwoven now, able to instantly respond to what we read or see. We exchange ideas, comfort each other, help each other find answers, soothed by the reminder that we don’t battle this disease alone.

From the time I blogged my clinical trial back in 2007, I saw firsthand how my words, launched into cyberspace, connected me to others: a pure and unbridled connection of thoughts. They weren’t clouded by self-conscious worries of how others might perceive me. And let’s face it, who doesn’t love going out of the house “virtually,” not having to worry if your clothes match or hair is brushed?

In fact, I’m sitting here in my bathrobe at 4 a.m. writing this blog post, connecting with you on my terms, at my time. It works both ways since you are reading this at your convenience, on your terms — and maybe in your jammies, too. The freedom and control is undeniable.

No matter if you are a ballerina who can stand en pointe or your soul does a dance from a chair … we can all fly free here, expressing ourselves online.

For a time, I thought my internet MS social circle was all I needed for support. Then I had an opportunity to be a patient speaker for Novartis, sharing my Gilenya experience with others. Interacting with group after group of MSers around the country, I was honored to meet new people, all so different from me, yet we all have MS as a common denominator.

That face-to-face connection allowed me to hear the inflection in their voices, read the emotion in their eyes–something the internet has yet to replace.

I am no longer a speaker for the drug, but I was so moved by that experience that I started a support group in my county. I was hoping to bring that personal connection to those in my community who are living with MS. So, I have come full circle and realize interacting in person is still an important piece of the social puzzle. Nothing can take the place of a real hug from someone else who “gets it”. No amount of emoticons can compare.

But when you live in the sticks, or your condition makes it hard to get out, the MSers of today have something we didn’t have–back in my day–people who know exactly what you’re going through and they’re only a keyboard away. The internet is full of support.

Sometimes I wonder what Dad would think of us connecting on the internet. I’m fairly certain that if he began his reply with “Back in my day” it would probably end with “I couldn’t have imagined anything as empowering as this.”

References:

http://www.gilenyaandme.com/

http://www.healthline.com/health-slideshow/multiple-sclerosis-support-groups#1

*Jeri Burtchell was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1999. She has spoken from a patient perspective at conferences around the country, addressing social media and the role it plays in designing clinical trials. Jeri is a MS blogger, patient activist, and freelance writer for the MS News Beat of Healthline.com. She lives in northeast Florida with her youngest son and elderly mother. When not writing or speaking, she enjoys crafting and photography.

 

 

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2013: The Year I Found My MS Voice (Thanks, Dad)

By: Jeri Burtchell 

After 15 years with multiple sclerosis (MS), I was sure I had learned all I needed to know about the disease. I’d heard every old wives’ tale, learned about every treatment, and Googled every symptom–real or imagined. Turns out I learned more in 2013 than my entire decade-and-a-half had taught me previously.

Years ago, my dad encouraged me to become a writer. Why, I had no clue. I’d never written anything he’d read except those anxiety-ridden letters from overseas as a young Army wife. Pleas for domestic advice, they had my folks in tears. Not from worry or concern, but the kind you cry when you laugh so hard you can’t catch your breath.

Dad saw a talent I never saw, but I never forgot his words. So when a friend suggested I apply for a writing job posted on Facebook, I thought why not? I believe in stepping through doors that open for you. If you don’t like what’s on the other side, you can always turn tail and run.

Imagine my surprise when I actually landed the gig. I was officially a freelance writer, covering the MS News for www.healthline.com. After my first article published, I squealed when I saw my byline. But writing a weekly article about MS would be challenging. How could there be “news” every single week? No need to worry.

I’ve stayed quite busy since I donned a reporter’s hat. There is so much going on in research now that even if I wrote a daily article I still wouldn’t cover it all.

From the exciting news that researchers in Germany have successfully rebooted the immune systems of some MS patients, to the less than great news that red wine may worsen MS, this past year has been an eye-opener.

My friends were star-struck when I interviewed Shemar Moore from Criminal Minds about his Bike MS event, but my own heart fluttered when I interviewed Dr. Steven Jacobson, Chief of the Viral Immunology Section at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke regarding Epstein-Barr Virus and MS. I guess I’m a bit quirky when it comes to who attains “rock star” status in my world. I’m an unscientific science nerd now and MS stands for More Science, please.

It’s been a fascinating journey to live a writer’s life. Every week is a new topic, with MS the theme. Granted, some news is disappointing (the red wine, again), but there is a constant flow of MS news and that is reassuring to me. Knowing there are people out there who’ve dedicated their lives to finding the answers for us gives me hope.

So when asked what I’ve learned looking back on 2013, it would be to keep digging for the truth. To share the facts that surface each time a researcher publishes a paper on their work in the field of MS.

Having to read those papers and form intelligent-sounding questions to use in my interviews has been an ongoing lesson itself. Lucky for me, I love my job.

My most important takeaway from 2013 is that I’ve seen how valuable each of us are who live with this disease. Research would come to a screeching halt and be nothing but unproven theories if not for us. The real heroes are the volunteers who give of themselves to get us closer to a cure.

Research should be something we all consider, not just those out of options. Studies covering everything from new disease modifying therapies to fatigue, cognitive issues and more are enrolling all the time. You can browse through them using a new tool that Healthline just launched. Even if you don’t intend to join, it should give you renewed hope that a cure could be close.

But does the idea of ingesting a mystery medication in the name of science seem a little too sci-fi for you? Relax! That’s not the only way to get involved.

Sites like www.PatientsLikeMe.com give us the opportunity to engage in research by taking surveys. When you answer questions about your health, you are contributing to a gold mine of data that will help researchers in their quest for a cure.

So, while my Dad never lived to see the day I became a published author, his encouragement lives on in my heart and mind. He was right all along. I just needed to go through that door and find my reason to write. I never would have guessed, all those years ago, that my voice would come after getting MS.

So here’s to 2014! May it bring us good health and happiness, and More Science, please!

References:

*Jeri Burtchell was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1999. She has spoken from a patient perspective at conferences around the country, addressing social media and the role it plays in designing clinical trials. Jeri is a MS blogger, patient activist, and freelance writer for the MS News Beat of Healthline.com. She lives in northeast Florida with her youngest son and elderly mother. When not writing or speaking, she enjoys crafting and photography.

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