Communicating Effectively with MS

By: Matt Cavallo

One barrier to accepting that you are now a person living with multiple sclerosis is communication. When I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, it seemed that every conversation I had ended up being about my MS. Whether it was family, friends or co-workers, inevitably during the conversation the person I was talking to would pause and ask, “So, how do you feel? You look great.”

While these conversations were well-intentioned, no one picked up on the fact that I didn’t want to talk about my disease. All I wanted was to do was have regular conversations about sports, work or the weather. The kind of conversations we would have before I was diagnosed. More and more I found myself avoiding conversations rather than reliving my diagnosis over and over again.

This was causing a tremendous amount of stress in my life and that stress was affecting all the relationships in my life. Whether it was at work, friends, family or my wife, all these relationships were suffering as a result of the breakdown in communication. I then realized that I wasn’t going to be able to control the way the people talked to me about my disease. If I wanted to end the stress of talking to people about MS, I was either going to have to cut everyone out of my life or change how I communicated my illness.

For me, change does not come easy. One of my 7 Steps to Living Well with a Chronic Illness, is Learning to Communicate Effectively. I believe that when you are diagnosed with a chronic illness, like MS, you go through five stages of grieving: denial, anger, fear, grief and finally, acceptance. Learning how to communicate effectively is what helped me go through these stages. Instead of losing relationships because of my MS I started to make changes that allowed me to accept my MS.

Excerpt from 7 Steps to Living Well with a Chronic Illness
Rediscovering My Purposematt blog

I remember sitting in my doctor’s office in the spring on 2007. I had previously shared with her a draft of my memoir, The Dog Story: A Journey into a New Life with Multiple Sclerosis. She loved the passion in which I describe my writing. She said that I had an articulate, succinct way of telling my patient experience story. She also said that there was an opportunity to share my story at an upcoming patient support group meeting. Without thinking about it, I agreed to speak at the meeting.

Then on my way home, a rush of anxiety and fear overwhelmed me. What had I agreed to? I had never given a speech. I didn’t know what to say or where to start. When I got home, I talked to Jocelyn about the upcoming speech. Given all that I had been through with my disease process, she thought that it would be good for me to attend the support group in general. She also thought that I would be good as a speaker. I was skeptical…

… I put on a blue blazer, a button down white shirt, a pair of jeans and some blue tennis shoes. My cousin came with me to film the event. As we drove, the butterflies started to mount in my stomach. I walked into the hotel lobby and followed the signs to the meeting room for the support group.

In an instant I had forgotten everything that I was going to say. I started sweating and paused for what seemed like an eternity. All eyes were on me and the projector beam was like a white hot piercing spotlight in an interrogation room. The doctor introduced me and I walked to the front of the room, raised my right hand and waved.

“Good afternoon everyone!”

I collected myself and began again. Eventually I started to feel my rhythm. The sweat was no longer pouring and I found my confidence and timing. The crowd even erupted with laughter when I interjected a joke. I was surprised. It was a subtle joke, but they got it. When that happened, the words started rolling off my tongue and I told my story better than I ever had rehearsed it. The audience loved it. Everyone came up to me afterwards and said how much my talk meant to them. I was touched.

Looking back, standing up in front of that crowd and sharing my story changed the way I felt about communicating my MS. Up until that point, I was not comfortable talking about MS at all. And it wasn’t because I was sharing my story in a front of a room full of people that caused the change in me. It was everyone in the audience who shared their story with me after the talk that helped me understand that I wasn’t alone. People shared similar experiences and how hard it was to talk about their illness. Since that day, I have made it my mission to spread the word about living with MS.

If you are going through difficulty with you MS or having a hard time accepting your diagnosis, it is OK. You are not alone. Learning to communicate your story of living with MS will help you in accepting your condition. Once you learn how to effectively communicate your story with MS you will find that you are not alone and that you really do look great!

*Matt Cavallo was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2005. Matt is an MS blogger, author, patient advocate, and motivational speaker. Matt also has his Master’s degree in Public Health Administration. Matt is the proud father of his two sons, loving husband to his wife, Jocelyn, and best friend to his dog, Teddy. Originally from the Boston suburbs, Matt currently resides in Arizona with his family. To learn more about Matt, please visit him at : http://mattcavallo.com/blog/

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Celebrating My Birthday Despite MS

Pic 1

By: Matt Cavallo 

This weekend we were celebrating my birthday. A birthday is generally a cause for celebration, but when you are living with multiple sclerosis, sometimes you don’t feel like celebrating. Especially if you live near Phoenix and high temperature on the day of your celebration was 111 degrees. I was feeling fatigued, overheated, and wanted to stay in bed all day. I was considering cancelling the dinner, but there was one party guest that had been waiting months for this night.

I had promised my son that we would go to Rustler’s Rooste, a famous Phoenix steakhouse, known for serving Rattlesnake. My oldest son is currently obsessed with snakes. A couple months back, he attended a birthday party that had an entertainer with exotic animals. At that party, he got to handle a snake and has wanted one ever since. I made the mistake of mentioning to him that a Phoenix steak house served Rattlesnake as an appetizer. He made me promise that I would take him for Rattlesnake. Even though I didn’t feel like going out, he needed me to live up to that promise.

As I laid in bed before I needed to get up and get ready to go to the steakhouse, I contemplated how MS had stopped me from going to other social events in the past. For a period of time, I had isolated myself from my friends and family because of how I felt. It got to the point where people stopped inviting me to events because they knew I wasn’t going to show. Now, here I was on the verge of letting MS fatigue and heat intolerance affect celebrating my own birthday and sacrifice the promise I made to my son.

As the clock ticked closer to our reservations, my fatigue and heat intolerance were not letting up. Neither was my son’s talk of finally getting to live his dream of eating Rattlesnake. I had a decision to make: was I going to let MS win and stay home, or was I going to fulfill my promise to my son?

Despite the MS fatigue and heat, I rose to the occasion. I took an ice cold shower, and we went over to the steakhouse. The boys had a great time, and so did I. I was happy that I had forced myself to go. Cooling myself down helped me handle the heat. More importantly, I didn’t let my MS keep me from making memories with my boys. The biggest surprise was that my boys liked eating the Rattlesnake. My oldest said it tasted liked fried chicken!

*Matt Cavallo was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2005. Matt is an MS blogger, author, patient advocate, and motivational speaker. Matt also has his Master’s degree in Public Health Administration. Matt is the proud father of his two sons, loving husband to his wife, Jocelyn, and best friend to his dog, Teddy. Originally from the Boston suburbs, Matt currently resides in Arizona with his family. To learn more about Matt, please visit him at : http://mattcavallo.com/blog/

 

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The Benefits of Aquatic Exercise and MS

By: Matt Cavallo

matt blog

Walking was always something that I took for granted until that one day that I couldn’t do it anymore. Then, as I watched the world walk by me, I yearned to be up on my feet ambling about. The problem was that no matter how strong my mind and determination were, my legs would simply not respond. It was hard for me to understand that the problem was in my spine and no amount of mental fortitude could overcome the spinal lesions caused by multiple sclerosis.

I was confined to small, assisted steps. I was able to travel only from my bed or couch to the bathroom and back. My wife brought food and drinks to me when she was home but when she was at work, I usually didn’t eat or drink. I was ashamed that I lost functionality the way I did. I didn’t want people to take pity upon me. I had always been this big, strong athletic guy and now I couldn’t even walk down three steps to get out of my house.

My doctor was confident that I could regain functionality and learn how to walk again. I wasn’t so sure. He said that the Solu-medrol would act to reduce the swelling in my spine, and little by little sensation would return to my legs. He did caution me that I would have to relearn how to walk and ordered me to have aquatic therapy. I was skeptical, but I gave it a shot.

The results were truly amazing. When I started exercising in the pool, my legs felt lighter and easier to move. The exercises really help to strengthen and balance me on my feet. While I was in the water, I felt free again. After three weeks of aquatic therapy, I was walking with a cane for short distances. I was not negotiating steps or hills, but I could get around the house on my own. More importantly, I was able to go to the bathroom again by myself. I was amazed at my progress. In just three short weeks, I was completely independent with walking.

Today, if you saw me in the street you wouldn’t think that I ever lost function of my legs. One of my secrets is that I continue to work out in the pool. I live in Arizona and can use my pool most of the year.

Now, if you are having immediate problems with strength, balance or mobility, you should contact your physician right away. If you are looking for a strengthening exercise routine that you can do on your own, you’ve come to the right place.

MSAA has a new online Aquatic Center that you can access at http://SwimForMS.org. The Aquatic Center has tools and inspirational videos for the MS community. Some of the resources include: guides for patients and healthcare professionals, a handy tip sheet about aquatic exercise and MS, information on how to find an aquatics facility in your area, and inspirational videos from three individuals sharing their personal stories about how water activities have positively impacted their lives.

Even if you don’t live in Arizona, you can still turn any pool, at any time into your own personal gym while raising awareness for MS.

*Matt Cavallo was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2005. Matt is an MS blogger, author, patient advocate, and motivational speaker. Matt also has his Master’s degree in Public Health Administration. Matt is the proud father of his two sons, loving husband to his wife, Jocelyn, and best friend to his dog, Teddy. Originally from the Boston suburbs, Matt currently resides in Arizona with his family. To learn more about Matt, please visit him at : http://mattcavallo.com/blog/

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Making the Best of a Bad Situation

By: Matt Cavallo

In terms of the heat, spring is quickly turning to summer in Arizona. Daily temperatures are already constantly in the nineties, creeping closer to triple digits every day. As a person living with multiple sclerosis, this is a problem. As the heat levels increase, so does my fatigue. Each day for me is becoming a battle of will and determination to accomplish simple, everyday tasks. My refuge from the heat is to hibernate in my cool, air-conditioned house.

Recently, I was at work and received a call from my wife that I wasn’t expecting. She told me that the central air-conditioner in the house went out. She went on to say that the AC repairman said the motor was dead and the entire unit needed to be replaced. The sticker shock of what a new AC unit costs was another blow, but with my MS, there was also no way I could afford not to replace the AC.

As I hung up the phone, I started to feel defeated and stressed. It always seems that just when I am starting to get ahead, I figure out a way to fall behind. As I reflected on the situation, I realized that it was out of my control. So what was I to do now? There are all kind of events in life that we don’t plan for, and this was a big one. I could let the worry, stress and financial considerations of the situation bring me down into a negative place, or I could look deep inside myself and somehow find the positive.

I decided that I was going to be positive. The AC was twenty years old, too small for the house and a real drain on our energy bill. We had talked about replacing it for years and this situation was forcing our hand. When I put it in my mind that getting a new AC was good for us, the negative circumstances started to change. We had a friend that could install the AC for a reasonable price. The vendor didn’t have the AC unit in stock that we purchased, so for the same price they gave us a bigger, more energy efficient unit. That unit then qualified for a $500 tax credit. The best moment, however, was the joy my four year old received as we watched the crane remove the old unit and then put the new unit on the roof. He was so excited to see the construction that it made me excited to share in that moment with him.

When life throws unexpected challenges at you, how do you handle them? You can choose to be negative or positive. I choose to make lemonade out of lemons and then pour myself a nice big glass.

*Matt Cavallo was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2005. Matt is an MS blogger, author, patient advocate, and motivational speaker. Matt also has his Master’s degree in Public Health Administration. Matt is the proud father of his two sons, loving husband to his wife, Jocelyn, and best friend to his dog, Teddy. Originally from the Boston suburbs, Matt currently resides in Arizona with his family. To learn more about Matt, please visit him at : http://mattcavallo.com/blog/

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New Year’s Resolution Follow Up

By: Matt Cavallo 

Raise your hand if you have stuck to your New Year’s resolution. Believe it or not, we are a quarter of the way through 2014 and reserving the right to recycle our resolutions for next year. I’ll be the first to throw myself under that bus! Seeing as we are a quarter of the way through the year, I wanted to follow up on some of the goals that I set and challenge myself to recommit to my original 2014 goals.

In January, I wrote that I was carrying about twenty one pounds of extra weight. This extra weight was making my legs weak and numb, my fatigue levels were high, and my clothes were uncomfortable. I resolved to lose twenty one pounds. My thinking was that in addition to my multiple sclerosis, the extra weight was contributing to the weakness in my legs and fatigue. My plan was to eat right, eat less and exercise more.

Eating right is a challenge to me. My line of work has me traveling the country almost every week. Seven out of eight weeks between January and February, I traveled. In fact, I am writing this right now on a flight from St. Louis back home to Phoenix. Between living in hotel rooms and the demands of my job, I didn’t have the strength or energy to get a healthy meal when there was a convenient drive-thru option. These eating decisions were the reason that I was struggling to button my pants!

Despite traveling extensively, I was determined to not have to buy new pants. I made the decision that I was going to lose weight on the road by changing my habits. First, I started with breakfast. The hotels that I stay at always have a breakfast buffet. There is an endless supply of bacon, eggs, toast and pastries. Most mornings I can smell the bacon long before I reach the buffet. As much as it pains me, the first change I made was skipping out of the buffet line and heading right to the yogurt and fruit. This change has been hard for me, and there are some days that I can’t resist a big breakfast, but I find that starting the day on the road with yogurt, fruit and a glass of water can be fulfilling and helps my digestive process.

For lunch, I have also been eating lighter. I work in hospitals, so I generally eat lunch at the cafeteria. The cafeterias generally tempt me with yummy burger, pizza or fried chicken options. Again I hold my nose and walk past temptation to the salad bar. I typically eat a salad and top it with some chicken. In the past, however, I would have smothered my healthy salad with a nice creamy ranch dressing, but lately I have opted for the lighter vinaigrettes. These dressings coat the salad easier, so you use less, and they are typically fewer calories than the creamy dressings I prefer.

These decisions that I make for breakfast and lunch afford me some slack at dinner. While my preference at the end of a long day of work on the road is for a double-stacked greasy drive-thru burger, large fries, and chocolate shake, I have been choosing healthier options. Instead of driving through, I place orders that force me to get out of the car. Instead of greasy, fried goodness, I have also been choosing lighter, grilled options.

The other thing that I am doing is consuming smaller portions. Part of it has to do with the fact that I don’t want to buy new pants, but I have found that once I cut back on my portion size, my body got used to it pretty fast. When I was consistently eating heavy meals, I needed more food. Now that I am eating less, I find that I get fuller faster. I am by nature a fast eater, who in the past would clean my plate before others around me had barely started. I now make a conscious effort to slow down and enjoy the food. By doing this, I don’t always have to clean my plate. Drinking more water throughout the day has also been a daily goal of mine. I found that some of my hunger may have been more related to being dehydrated than actually hungry.

With all of these changes, I have lost eleven pounds, which is halfway to my goal weight. My legs feel lighter, and I am less fatigued. And yes, my pants are now less of a struggle to button!

While I am winning the battle with diet, I am losing with exercise. I have made my annual post-resolution trip to the gym. I worked out, felt great and haven’t been back since! There is a free gym in every hotel where I stay, but I find myself alone in my room catching up TV shows or movies that I can’t watch at home because of the kids. I do tend to take the stairs instead of the elevator and keep true to my daily walks, but I know that I would feel so much better if I could just commit to working out.

So, a quarter into the year, and I am doing OK with my resolutions. I have lost half of my goal weight by making better eating decisions which included eating healthier and having smaller portion sizes. It was a struggle at first, but I feel better only ninety days into this year than I did last year. While I am doing well with diet, I have not followed through with exercise. Much like diet, once I establish a routine, I’ll be used to it and it will become natural. I am not there yet. However, New Year’s is not the only time for resolutions. You can recommit to feeling healthier anytime during the year. Are you accomplishing your resolutions? What are you going to do to get back on track? Invest in yourself because you are worth it, and be the change you want to be.

*Matt Cavallo was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2005. Matt is an MS blogger, author, patient advocate, and motivational speaker. Matt also has his Master’s degree in Public Health Administration. Matt is the proud father of his two sons, loving husband to his wife, Jocelyn, and best friend to his dog, Teddy. Originally from the Boston suburbs, Matt currently resides in Arizona with his family. To learn more about Matt, please visit him at : http://mattcavallo.com/blog/

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Is There a Relationship Between MS, Allergies and Histamine?

By: Matt Cavallo 

Spring is in the air. So is pollen. With the pollen, my seasonal allergies are in full bloom. I am still sneezing from the last time I stopped to smell the roses. With my seasonal allergies at their peak, I wondered: is there a correlation between multiple sclerosis and allergies?

When I started my research, I was instantly disappointed. All of the initial research pointed to no correlation between MS and allergies. In fact, a 2011 study by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) titled, Association between allergies and multiple sclerosis: a systematic review and meta-analysis, concluded that there was no connection between allergic diseases and MS.

While the initial research suggested no direct correlation between MS and allergies, the deeper I dug, a relationship between histamine and multiple sclerosis started to evolve. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, histamine is a “biologically active substance found in a great variety of living organisms…In an allergic reaction—the immune system’s hypersensitivity reaction to usually harmless foreign substances (called antigens in this context) that enter the body—mast cells release histamine in inordinate amounts.” The definition goes on to explain that the antigens can cause inflammation. After reading this research, my questions became: Does the inflammation caused by these antigens contribute to MS symptoms? And is this partly why I feel worse when my allergies are at their peak?

My questions lead me to research more about histamine and MS. As it turns out there are research studies ongoing exploring the relationship between MS and histamine. A study of histamines and MS on Science Daily found an “unexpected connection between pathways involved in autoimmunity and allergy and suggests previously unrecognized connections between these very different types of immune responses.” The NCBI concluded in a 2013 study, Elevated CSF histamine levels in multiple sclerosis patients, that MS patients had higher histamine levels than the control group and that further exploration was needed.

I am not a scientist, nor am I a doctor. I’m just a guy with MS and bad seasonal allergies. I know that when I feel crummy due to my allergies, that my MS symptoms seem to flare. There are two sides to the argument: one suggests no relationship between MS and allergies, the other suggests that a key immune response to allergies, histamine, may play a role in multiple sclerosis. Until they are able to figure it out, I’m still not going to stop and smell the roses. Hopefully with science and research, one day I will be able to.

Resources:
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20456246
http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/267004/histamine
http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/01/110131133317.htm
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23659456

*Matt Cavallo was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2005. Matt is an MS blogger, author, patient advocate, and motivational speaker. Matt also has his Master’s degree in Public Health Administration. Matt is the proud father of his two sons, loving husband to his wife, Jocelyn, and best friend to his dog, Teddy. Originally from the Boston suburbs, Matt currently resides in Arizona with his family. To learn more about Matt, please visit him at : http://mattcavallo.com/blog/

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Commonly Missed Medical Expenses for Tax Deductions

By Matt Cavallo:

The change of the season can only mean one thing: taxes! I can’t turn on my TV or radio right now without hearing an advertisement for tax preparation. Whether you prepare your own taxes or use a tax preparation service, one of the most overlooked areas for tax deductions are medical expenses. In this blog, I will provide a list of deductions that you may have overlooked in previous years.

As a person living with multiple sclerosis, your out-of-pocket medical expenses can be extremely high in any given year. You probably know that your out-of-pocket medical expenses are deductible, but do you know what is considered a medical expense? For example, did you know that the mileage for all the trips you made back and forth to the neurologist, MRI scan or other doctor appointments are tax deductible? If you did not record the mileage during the appointments, don’t worry. Your explanation of benefits from your insurance company will list of all the appointments that you would have traveled for. You can then calculate the mileage to and from your appointment online at Google or Mapquest, and then add up total mileage for all of your doctor visits and you’ll get your deduction amount.

This is just one example of many tax deductions that people living with MS miss every year. Other items that you can write off as a tax deduction include items that insurance may not cover, such as acupuncture and chiropractic care; medical equipment; medications; and smoking cessation programs. There are also health expenses that may not be deducted. Health Savings Accounts (HSA), Flexible Spending Accounts (FSA) and Medical Savings Accounts (MSA) are all bought with pretax dollars, so your contributions cannot be tax deductible. Also non-prescription medications, medications from other countries and nutritional supplements cannot be deducted.

There are certain items that can be viewed as either deducible or not deductible. While you cannot write off visits that insurance did pay for, did you know that you can write off your self-funded medical insurance premium as a tax deduction? For example, if you pay $400 per month for medical insurance, then that is an additional $4,800 for the year that can go towards your itemized deductions! However, while insurance paid for medical care can be deducted, you cannot write off any premium for extra insurance like life, supplemental or employer-sponsored program paid with pre-tax dollars. Also gym memberships may be a write off – if the doctor writes a letter of medical necessity stating that you need the membership for health reasons, but a gym membership for personal fitness or stress reduction is not considered a write-off.

Life with MS can be expensive. Make sure that you take advantage of tax deductions for all expenses related to your illness. Please note that I am not a tax expert and these tips are to be used for informational purposes only.  Before filling out your medical deductions, please read about all of the deductions that are acceptable and not acceptable located in form IRS Publication 502 – Medical and Dental Expenses. IRS Publication 502 breaks down all of the items that may or may not be deducted. Start spring out right and maximize those healthcare deductions!

Resource:

http://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-pdf/p502.pdf

*Matt Cavallo was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2005. Matt is an MS blogger, author, patient advocate, and motivational speaker. Matt also has his Master’s degree in Public Health Administration. Matt is the proud father of his two sons, loving husband to his wife, Jocelyn, and best friend to his dog, Teddy. Originally from the Boston suburbs, Matt currently resides in Arizona with his family. To learn more about Matt, please visit him at : http://mattcavallo.com/blog/

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I’m being followed by a Moon Shadow

By: Matt Cavallo

When I was diagnosed with MS in the spring of 2005, I was completely devastated. In my darkest hours, I believed that my hopes and dreams were over. I was convinced that I was going to lose my job and wouldn’t be able to pay any of my bills. I thought that Jocelyn, who was only 27 at the time, should leave me and start over with someone who didn’t have a chronic illness. I didn’t think it was fair for her to care for a sick man at such a young age. I also didn’t think that we would be able to have children. Not only was being a dad a dream of mine, but I didn’t want to deprive Jocelyn of the joys of motherhood. Or if we were able to have children, I didn’t want to be a burden on the family and have my kids growing up with a disabled father.

I stayed in this depression for months after my diagnosis. I built a wall around me and pushed everyone out to the periphery. Multiple sclerosis had changed me. The man in the mirror no longer looked like me. My spirit had been drained and replaced by a pale, sad man with raccoon eyes. Not only did I not look like myself, I wasn’t acting like myself either. I was becoming short with people and increasingly negative. Other times I would be quiet and retreat within myself. Being an extroverted conversationalist, those around me at the time couldn’t figure out why I wouldn’t carry on a simple conversation.

A lot of it had to do with how I felt the world around me perceived me. Many people who talked to me after my diagnosis weren’t sure what multiple sclerosis was and expected me to be in a wheelchair when they saw me. Others would say positive things like, “you look great” or “it could be worse”. Most compliments ended up making me feel worse and more isolated. I felt like no one, not even Jocelyn, understood me. I felt like I was alone on an island and that no one else on the planet knew what it felt like to be me.

As soon as I was able to operate a car again on my own, I drove by myself to a beach I had often frequented as a child.  I needed to be there by myself, alone with my thoughts.  I sat behind the wheel of my Ford Ranger in a parking space near the beach wall and looked out towards the ocean. Trying to make sense of my diagnosis, I watched the waves crash.

Between the sound of the waves, a song popped into the jukebox of my mind. It was a familiar song, one from my youth: Moon Shadow, by Cat Stevens. I started humming the lyrics to the chorus, but couldn’t remember the words. I needed to know why I was thinking about that song at that moment. I sped off toward my parent’s house and grabbed the Cat Steven’s Great Hits CD from their collection. I then got back in the truck and drove with Moon Shadow on repeat.

I listened intently to the song and concentrated on the message behind the lyrics. The lyrics spun a story of a man who lost his legs, eyes, hands and mouth. It struck me that I could lose these same functions because of MS. I realized that the initials of Moon Shadow were MS. Then it hit me: I was being followed by a Moon Shadow. A wave of emotion hit me. I was too young to be disabled. There was so much I still wanted to accomplish in life. I felt lost and scared for what my future held.

As I listened to Moon Shadow for the seventh time in a row, my panic turned to calm.  Although the man in the song knew he could lose all these physical functions, he was going to be alright.  That was the first time I realized I’m going to be alright too.

I was still too overwhelmed at that time to communicate my fears and feelings to others, but I did start to journal and capture my emotions on paper.  Slowly over time my notebook of blue-lined paper transferred into my memoir, The Dog Story. The Dog Story gave me a voice and the confidence to help others who were living with a chronic illness and experiencing the same things that I did. I want other patients to know that they are not alone. Most importantly, I want to share a message about hope, the powers of love and finding strength in your darkest hour.

Today, I no longer feel ugly, isolated or alone. I am living a life that I never dreamed possible. Jocelyn never left me despite my attempts of pushing her away. Now, we have two beautiful boys that our world revolves around. I am the dad that I always wanted to be coaching their baseball teams and doing normal dad stuff. My career is helping other people like me and using the story that I was once ashamed to tell to inspire others that if I can do it, they can too. I still walk my dog every day, whether I feel that I am strong enough or not.  And while driving during time of quiet reflection, I still find myself humming along to Moon Shadow. And I am thankful.

*Matt Cavallo was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2005. Matt is an MS blogger, author, patient advocate, and motivational speaker. Matt also has his Master’s degree in Public Health Administration. Matt is the proud father of his two sons, loving husband to his wife, Jocelyn, and best friend to his dog, Teddy. Originally from the Boston suburbs, Matt currently resides in Arizona with his family. To learn more about Matt, please visit him at : http://mattcavallo.com/blog/

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Connecting through Storytelling

By: Matt Cavallo

When I was first diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, I was afraid. I didn’t want anyone to know that I had this potentially disabling disease. I was afraid to tell my boss for fear of losing my job, and I was afraid to tell my friends because I didn’t want them to think of me differently. I started pushing away the few people in my life who did know what I was dealing with, because I was afraid of them seeing my condition progress. This included my wife. I was stuck in a deep depression. For all intents and purposes, my life post-diagnosis was being spent lying in my bed watching daytime reruns.

This all changed when my neurologist at the time in Boston asked me to come out and speak at a patient event. She wanted me to tell them the story that I had shared with her about how I got my dog. I was nervous. Not only had I not been telling people about my MS, but now I was going to be up on a stage talking to a big group of strangers about an intensely personal struggle that was raging inside me. That night came, and it changed my life forever.

In an instant, surrounded by a group of my peers living with multiple sclerosis, I realized that I wasn’t alone. By sharing my story that night, I felt a weight lift from me, as the people around me opened up and started sharing their story, too. I was no longer ashamed, embarrassed or depressed that I had MS and was not the man I used to be. Instead, I felt empowered and was embracing the opportunity to connect with others on the most personal of levels, united by this MS tie that binds us.

Sharing my story has opened up doors to places that I had never dreamed of before. It has taken me from coast to coast, putting me on TV, exercise DVDs, newspapers, radio shows, and even onstage in Las Vegas. Had I given up on myself back when I was diagnosed in 2005, I wouldn’t be living these dreams and ambitions that I never knew I had. While there have been many personal accomplishments since my diagnosis, it is always the personal encounters that I value the most.

This is just one example of thousands I have experienced on my journey:

At a restaurant next to the Savannah airport on one of my recent trips, I sat down next to a man who I would say was probably in his twenties. I turned and looked at him and asked, “What is good here?”

“Try the Tybee Island, and you can’t go wrong with a burger,” he replied.

I took his advice and complimented him on the local beer recommendation as we started talking. He was a pipefitter on a job assignment from South Carolina. He was missing his wife and little boy, but still had some time left on his job.

“What brings you to Savannah?” he asked.

“Storytelling,” I replied.

He was intrigued by my answer, so I explained to him that I go around to hospitals and talk to doctors, nurses, therapists, and other clinical staff about the patient experience-and that I also speak to patient and caregiver groups.

“So,” he says, “what kind of doctor are you?”

“I’m not,” I replied, “I’m a patient. I tell them the story of how I got my dog.”

He was captivated and wanted to hear the dog story. So, I told him the story of my symptoms, that I lost my ability to walk and go to the bathroom on my own, and how my diagnosis of MS led to my wife getting me a dog for my birthday, and ultimately my promise to walk him every day. I told him that it had been eight years since then, and I have still kept my promise. I could tell by the look in his eyes that he needed a story like mine on that night.

My food comes, and I order another beer. We go on to talk about the kids. He settles up his tab, shakes my hand and pats me on the back.

“It was great meeting you,” I said. He returned the sentiment.

I finish my burger and beer, then I ask the bartender for my bill. She turned and looked at me and said, “That man that just walked out paid for you and the tip.”

My jaw dropped. I wanted to thank him and say that it wasn’t necessary. I ran out to the parking lot, but he was gone. I couldn’t believe that a complete stranger, a kid in his twenties and someone who had never heard of MS, would surprise me with that selfless gesture. All I did was share my story with him.

Encounters such as this have reinforced to me the power of storytelling. Your story is your power. Many of us living with multiple sclerosis get stuck in the same depressive rut that I experienced when I was first diagnosed. When you are able to open up and share your story with others, you will realize that you are not alone. Each one of us living on this planet has some cross to bear. Ours just happens to have a name: MS. Sharing may make you vulnerable, but you’ll also find that when you open yourself up to others, you truly see the good in people. To the stranger in Savannah, thanks again for the burger and the beer. I will pay it forward.

*Matt Cavallo was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2005. Matt is an MS blogger, author, patient advocate, and motivational speaker. Matt also has his Master’s degree in Public Health Administration. Matt is the proud father of his two sons, loving husband to his wife, Jocelyn, and best friend to his dog, Teddy. Originally from the Boston suburbs, Matt currently resides in Arizona with his family. To learn more about Matt, please visit him at : http://mattcavallo.com/blog/

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Tips for Avoiding a Post-Holiday Multiple Sclerosis Flare

By: Matt Cavallo

The holiday season is behind us. Packed away in the garage are all the ornamental memories of the season. Driving around the neighborhood at night no longer is decorated by blinking bright lights. And while the majority of people are resuming their day-to-day routine, those of us living with Multiple Sclerosis are unknowingly entering the danger zone.

While the holidays are a magical time of year, they also impose emotional and financial stresses upon us. Many of us are looking at our December statements wondering how we spent so much or how we are going to pay off the bills. We are probably also feeling the after effects of all those great holiday dinners and desserts.

As the stress of paying the bills or trying to lose weight begins to build, we are at a greater risk for triggering a Multiple Sclerosis Exacerbation. According to the National MS Society, “an exacerbation of MS (also known as a relapse, attack, or flare-up) causes new symptoms or the worsening of old symptoms.” A 2003 research study concluded that, “stressful events were associated with increased exacerbations in relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis.” Furthermore, according to Healthline.com, “researchers considered the four weeks following a stressful event to be a high-risk time for exacerbations.”

Considering that the holidays are a stressful event, for those of us living with MS, this stress can lead to an exacerbation. Here are some tips to help minimize the stress from the holidays:

Tips for Minimizing Post-Holiday Stress

  1. Develop a financial plan – as the bills mount from the holidays, create a financial plan to help successfully budget your expenses. You may not be able to pay off the bills right away, but having a plan to pay off debt can help reduce stress associated with financial obligations.
  2. Change eating habits – the holidays include a lot of emotional eating. Not only do we eat larger portion sizes during the holiday, but we also eat more desserts. Use the time after the holiday to get back on track in terms of eating healthy.
  3. Exercise – the stress of holidays and the shorter days of winter make it easy to skip exercising. Exercising reduces stress and can help with symptom management.
  4. Get back on schedule – the holidays force you out of your routine. The stress of getting to these holiday events or finding the energy to participate in these events can be draining for people living with Multiple Sclerosis. Getting back on your established routine can help reduce stress.
  5. Set attainable goals – two weeks after the holidays and some of us have already broken our New Year’s resolutions. Revisit the goals that you had to start the year and make sure that the goals are attainable. Setting too high goal expectations can bring about unnecessary stress whereas goals that you can achieve could reduce stress.

As a person living with Multiple Sclerosis, understand that the stress of the holidays can leave you at a greater risk for an MS flare up. Managing that stress can help reduce the risk of an MS exacerbation. Exercising, eating right and developing a financial plan are some of the ways that you can manage stress. Following these tips and reducing stress in your life will help you avoid a post-holiday MS flare.

Resources

*Matt Cavallo was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2005. Matt is an MS blogger, author, patient advocate, and motivational speaker. Matt also has his Master’s degree in Public Health Administration. Matt is the proud father of his two sons, loving husband to his wife, Jocelyn, and best friend to his dog, Teddy. Originally from the Boston suburbs, Matt currently resides in Arizona with his family. To learn more about Matt, please visit him at : http://mattcavallo.com/blog/

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