A Letter from a Friend

Dear friend,

I am sorry to learn of your recent MS diagnosis. My heart cannot truly grasp the emotions you must be experiencing. I imagine this new chapter of your life has been quite scary and frustrating for you. Please know that you have a community of advocates behind you cheering you on.

I have seen firsthand how an MS diagnosis can take you on a wild emotional roller coaster ride that you never asked to be on. My mother was diagnosed with MS back in 1996. Advances in research and educational information about MS were much different back then. She wasn’t told that every person’s MS journey is unique and can look totally different than someone else’s. As a family we had no idea that MS didn’t look the same for everyone who was diagnosed with it.

As you deal with being newly diagnosed, I’d like to share with you a few words of encouragement that I wish someone had given my mom.

Your story as an MS fighter is completely unique to you. Try to stay away from WebMD and get your information from reliable sources such as your doctor’s office and MS organizations like this one I’m writing to you from. Also, staying positive is extremely important as you navigate through this uncharted territory. Remember, toxic emotions release neurotoxins into the body. Additionally, being mindful of the type of food you put in your body goes a long way. And Lastly, never be afraid to ask for help, and never be ashamed to advocate for yourself.

Friend, I want you to know that I think of you often and wish you all the best as you learn to live life as someone who has been newly diagnosed with MS. MSAA is rooting for you, cheering you on, and doing everything we can to make a positive impact in your life and on the entire MS community.

We are here for you, and we care about you.

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Community Views: Advice I Would Have Given Myself at Diagnosis

Advice for MS diagnosis

Multiple sclerosis (MS) often feels overwhelming at the time of diagnosis. Feeling powerless may be your first reaction. Yet, as you live with MS, you find strength and coping strategies.

Everyone needs tools for the journey. We recently asked the Facebook community, “If you could go back to the day of your diagnosis, what advice would you give your younger self?” We have compiled some of the shared wisdom below.

Get a second opinion

One important tip you shared was to see an MS specialist for your care. While your primary care physician (PCP) is a good starting resource, having someone who specializes in MS is vital. Specialists will be current on the latest research and are your best asset for managing the disease.1

“Get a second opinion with a doctor that specializes in MS right away.”

“I was referred and told it would be a 6-month wait by a doctor I respect. I turned out to be 9 months and worth the wait.”

Mental Health

Being diagnosed with MS can have a significant impact on your mental health. Having a chronic illness creates all sorts of turmoil as life and abilities change. Caring for your mental health at the outset of the disease helps you manage long-term.

“Depression has been harder for me than the MS! Get a good therapist and investigate the meds.”

“Mental health is just as important as physical!”

Treatment

The community also shared the importance of developing a treatment plan with your doctor from the start. Getting MS into remission and keeping it there involves making a plan and staying consistent with it.

“Get on treatment and STAY on treatment.”

“Start on relapsing-remitting drugs as soon as possible.”

“When you go into remission, be sure to keep taking your medication even if you feel fine.”

Move your body

Getting regular exercise helps manage MS symptoms. Gentle exercise can improve strength, mood, bowel and bladder function, and bone density.2 Many of you shared what a difference regular movement makes with this disease.

“Do the yoga, do it now and keep doing it.”

“Stay as active as you possibly can. Keep your muscles in shape.”

“Walk while you still can.”

Lifestyle changes

Living with MS involves adapting your lifestyle to accommodate the changes. Some of you prioritize your “bucket list” in the early years of having more stamina. You also learn to slow down and listen to your body to avoid exacerbations.

“Eat right. Stay hydrated. Stay away from stress.”

“Don’t try to get everything done before getting too fatigued.”

“Do whatever you dream of now because you might not be able to do so later on.”

“Be willing to adapt. Your future husband will NOT fold towels the way you do – and that’s okay, he’s trying to help.”

Keep living

One of the most crucial things you shared was focusing on enjoying life. Life does not end with an MS diagnosis. It will change, many days will be hard, and yet, as you reminded us, “Your disease doesn’t and never will define you!!”

“Stop worrying about what MIGHT happen and focus on the good in life.”

“Don’t assume you will follow the path of someone else; everyone is different.”

“It will be OK. OK may just look different, but it will still be OK.”

“You are still you and always will be. This is just a detour in your life’s journey. It is NOT the end of the road, but rather the beginning of a new one.”

References:

1. Cavallo M. Neurologists and Specialists of MS. MS Focus Magazine. Available at https://www.msfocusmagazine.org/Magazine/Magazine-Items/Posted/Neurologist-and-Specialists-of-MS. Accessed 5/25/2021.
2. Exercise. National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Available at https://www.nationalmssociety.org/Living-Well-With-MS/Diet-Exercise-Healthy-Behaviors/Exercise. Accessed 5/25/2021.

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The Changes in Me Since My MS Diagnosis: Kinship and Nurturing My Well-Being

By Stacie Prada

Experiencing life events and trauma can change a person. We all experience life milestones and challenges, yet they are so personal and timed differently for each of us that how we react or change is never the same. Losing a loved one or experiencing an illness is different when experienced as a child, a young adult or as an older adult. Our expectations and life skills are different at each point in our life, and what may be life changing for one may be life affirming for another.

As I reflect on how being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and living with symptoms has affected me, it’s difficult for me to Continue reading

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Multiple Sclerosis Changed My Life

Multiple Sclerosis Change

By Penelope Conway

Life changes. It changes things around you and it even changes you…more than you realize. When multiple sclerosis came into my life, it happened quickly. So quickly in fact that I didn’t even have an opportunity to blink before the tsunami hit. There weren’t months or years of unanswered symptoms. I had a healthy body one day and a non-functioning one the next. My diagnosis only took days where, for many, it can be a long and exhausting process.

The initial shock for me was Continue reading

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Accepting Your Diagnosis – Welcome the Beast?

By Lauren Kovacs

This is a process that is very different for everyone. It is not easy to face the monster. It is often a lonely quest. Questions, nervousness, unknowns, anger and shock tend to be its odor. Stinky.

My story is too long to write. You would get bored. It was so long ago and re-living it does not help me much. It changes and we change with it. Faith, for me, has been my only rock.

It started when I was 16 and involved nine months of Continue reading

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The Underground World of MS: Part 1

By Alene Brennan

My first reaction when I received the diagnosis of Relapsing Remitting Multiple Sclerosis? Do NOT tell a soul. People would judge me and put limits on me. Not to mention I was 37 years old and single. MS isn’t exactly the trait I wanted featured on my online dating profile.

I kept my diagnosis a secret for more than a year. Continue reading

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You Are Stronger Than You Think

By Penelope Conway

There are so many things that I’m thankful for. I could list the usual: family, friends, warm fuzzy slippers and coffee…but those things seem so shallow to me now. Not because they aren’t important, but because my focus has shifted greatly over the years.

This morning, as I sat asking myself why I’m thankful, a flood of thoughts came to my mind. I have seen people faced with terrible circumstances who have become bitter in the process, and I have seen others rise above their challenges and become a light and a source of hope to the world around them. Which am I? Which are you?

As someone living with multiple sclerosis, I remember the day I sat in the doctor’s office when he gave me the unwelcome news that I have MS. I went through a full range of emotions in the weeks that followed from denial, to pain, to anger, to depression, to acceptance. It was a shocking blow to my life and something that I never saw coming. I had plans and MS wasn’t one of them.

It’s definitely been a hard road. I have had to adjust the way I do just about everything because even the simplest of daily tasks have become challenging for me. Some days I even have arguments with myself about getting dressed for the day or going to the store for something other than toilet paper. It’s amazing how much I took for granted before MS.

But you know, regardless of the struggle, I refuse to give up. I will NOT let MS keep me from being thankful…or from living.

The questions that I’ve asked myself, even just recently, have been simple. Can I be thankful regardless of the circumstances I find myself in? Can I find beauty in the chaos? Can I look this disease of MS square in the eyes and say, “I am not defeated because of you and in spite of the challenges I face, I will be thankful for each new day I am given.”

I decided to stop questioning why I was going through this crazy storm in my life and resolved to be thankful as I go through. I pictured myself as a tree swaying in the wind, but anyone who has ever lived through a tsunami, hurricane or tornado knows that even the strongest of trees break. It may still be standing when the storm subsides, but scars are left behind as a reminder of what once was branches and sometimes even the trunk breaks.

The truth is, multiple sclerosis changes you. It leaves scars both in your brain and spine, but also in your heart. You change. The storm you are enduring…people can’t see it. Some try to understand, but without living in your body and experiencing your journey by walking in your shoes, they just can’t understand the mental and emotional pains you face each day along with a slew of symptoms. They don’t know how often you cover your tears with a smile and piece together your heart with bubble gum and shoestrings.

Are you stronger because of MS? Absolutely you are. You are stronger even in the breaking. You have endured much and just like how a tree grows new limbs once a storm has torn it apart, you are growing and changing every day. You may be at a place where you feel like the storm is overtaking you, but the winds will calm and the sun will come out.

Hold on with everything you’ve got, then when you find your strength again…hold your head high proud of what you’ve come through and choose to be thankful for all you’ve overcome. I have learned that strength isn’t measured by the amount of things I can do or by how little I cry, it’s determined by the attitude that I have while going through the storms in life.

Not many people can make it through a storm, break, then keep going…but you are doing it. So the next time someone tells you to stay strong, smile in your brokenness realizing that your scars speak of your strength and tell a story that only a warrior can tell.

*Penelope Conway was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in November 2011. She is the author and founder of Positive Living with MS (positivelivingwithms.com) where she uses humor and her own life experiences with MS to help others navigate this unpredictable journey. She believes that staying positive and holding onto hope is the key to waking up each morning with the strength to get through the day.

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Everyone Has a Unique Diagnosis Story

Everyone living with MS has been diagnosed at different stages in their lives and each has a unique story and experience. We wanted to know more from our community members, so we asked a simple question: “At what age were you diagnosed with MS?” Not only did several hundred community members respond, but we heard bits and pieces of so many different diagnosis stories. Here’s what some of our community members told us.

Diagnosis at any age

Many of our members reported completely varying ages of diagnosis, including the following responses:

“At 24 I was diagnosed… now it’s 10 years and 4 kids later.”

“I was 29 years old, started with numbness & tingling in left foot… within a couple of days both legs were numb & tingling.  After a month & a bunch of tests I was told it was MS.”

“They told me in my 20’s it might be MS, I didn’t get a diagnosis until I was 50.”

“I was diagnosed at 43 in Jan 2014.”

“For me it was two years ago at the age of 55 years old.”

“I was diagnosed at the age of 60 in 2015.

“I was 41, but had symptoms a few years prior.”

“The official diagnosis came when I was 21

“I was diagnosed at 52 years old.”

There is not often a direct path to diagnosis

Many of our community members have found that confirming their MS diagnosis was not a simple nor a fast process. A large portion of our community members experienced symptoms for months, years, or even decades before getting an actual diagnosis.

“I was 23, but I had undiagnosed left sided weakness and heat intolerance since about 14

“For me it was at the age of 29, but I started showing symptoms since the age of 15. I was hospitalized for weeks because of numbness on my left side from head to toe. They ran the gamut of tests they had back then and had no idea…

“I was 38 but took 8 years to get the diagnosis!

“I was diagnosed at 43 years old, but I had been experiencing symptoms for at least 15 years. It almost came as a relief, because at least now I knew.”

“Diagnosed at 54, with weird symptoms for over 2 decades.”

“Symptoms at 26, diagnosed at 52.

“Probable diagnosis at 28 … definite at 33”

“My first symptoms at 45, final diagnosis at 48, after misdiagnosing and treating sinus area pain”

Incorrect diagnoses

Diagnosing MS can be a challenging process; early symptoms can often be suggestive of several other conditions. Not only did many of of our community members report having a long journey to diagnosis, but also, having stops along the way where they were misdiagnosed, or treated for something different.

“Diagnosed at 56….it took many years as it’s a disease that masks others…they thought it was Lupus for many years”

“I was 34 but misdiagnosed for 10 years”

“I was 33 years old, but was misdiagnose with Epstein-Barr for seven years”

“I was 29 but I had been misdiagnosed with hemiplegic migraines for year before”

 “At 31… Was told it was a brain tumor…

“I was diagnosed at 19 but had symptoms my whole life doctors thought I had a stroke or diabetes or just bad migraines”

Regardless of age, the road to diagnosis may not be a direct or simple one. An MS diagnosis can come at any time in life, and can change everything.  Whether you’re diagnosed at 15, 55, or 95, we’re here for you! We hope you’ll continue to share your diagnosis experiences with the MultipleSclerosis.net community.

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Note to Self: What I Would Tell the Newly Diagnosed Me About MS

By Jeri Burtchell

Driving along a rural stretch of two lane highway in north Florida, the sun beamed down in the most cheerful way. I pulled off the road and parked in a spot with woods on either side. I got out of the car and sat on the hood, burying my face in my hands. The cheerful chirping of the birds contrasted sharply with my deep, mournful sobs.

I’d just come from my Second Opinion where a doctor had smiled at me, saying, “Yep! You definitely have MS,” before heading out the door to casually change the next life down the hall forever.

So here I was, alone in the woods on a gorgeous day. How could nature be so happy when I was so devastated?

After a good cry I got in the car and headed home to share the news with my family, and try to wrap my brain around the idea of “forever”.

Being newly diagnosed – especially in 1999 when the internet and social media weren’t even on my radar – was a very scary and lonely time.

Drawing by Jeri Burtchell

It’s been going on two decades since that day, and if I could go back in time and send a letter by carrier pigeon to the woman sitting on that car hood, here is what it would say:

Dear Newly Diagnosed Me,

I know you’re terrified, but trust me, I’ve learned a lot since then. You’re sitting here crying now, but so much will happen in the next 17 years you wouldn’t believe me if I told you. I don’t have time to explain, but I’ve written these tips to help you get through. You have to trust me on this…

You won’t have to do shots forever. At that time there were only 4 therapies (all shots) to choose from. I was terrified of needles and often skipped shots because of it.

Take charge of your health. There were many things I changed gradually after diagnosis—I quit smoking, started eating better and getting more rest. It made a difference in how I felt.

Don’t let one bad day—or month—keep you down. It’s hard to believe things will get better when you’re in the middle of an MS relapse. Hang in there, though.

Build your own medical team. My newly diagnosed self didn’t know that there are MS “specialists” who know more than a regular neurologist. I also didn’t know to stand up for myself and ask questions. On the advice of my first neurologist, I stayed on a therapy for 8 years that wasn’t working for me. When I finally decided to switch doctors, that’s when I learned about other options and found something that keeps my MS in check. So pick your medical team. Choose your specialists and your primary care doctor based on how well they communicate, how open they are to helping you explore your options, and how much you trust them. Never feel afraid to question them or get second opinions.

Explore your options. Besides the available treatments and therapies, find out about cutting edge research. There is so much going on right now in MS research there might be an opportunity to help bring a new breakthrough drug or device to market – and you’ll be among the first to benefit. Talk to your doctor or learn more on sites like MSAA.

Discover others and network. Not only does misery love company, but you can learn so much by finding others who “get it”. No need explaining how exhausted you are by fatigue, or what that crazy zapping feeling is when you bend your neck. There are people out there who know exactly what you’re going through. Network with them to learn about MS, to find out what MS clinics or doctors are awesome, tricks for getting symptom relief and more. Search Facebook for groups to join or find others by doing a Google search of multiple sclerosis support groups.

There’s no need to feel alone. There’s no reason to let fear of the unknown take over. Get involved, learn all you can, meet others, volunteer, and just keep plugging away at living the best life you can. Things will get better. I promise.

Love,

Your Future Self

Oh yeah, PS: Don’t wait so long to cut your hair. You really look a lot better now. 🙂

*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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Dear Newly Diagnosed

By Lisa Scroggins

This should have been easy for me to write. My topic is coping with getting a diagnosis of MS (multiple sclerosis). Mine occurred quite a while ago, and that is why I believe it’s been somewhat difficult to write about. Not from lack of memory, nor lack of interest. So much has changed since I received a diagnosis, that at first, I thought, there are treatments now – not so when I was diagnosed. There is so much information available on the internet now, yet when I was desperate for information, that now well-traveled virtual highway was known only to a handful of adventurous folks; that is, not to you and me. I was limited to what I could find at my local library, which was paltry, at best.

Then it came to me: the same technology that has made instant communication possible, that has transformed the world, truly, is not all lollipops and gumdrops. If I were speaking to someone newly diagnosed, I think one of the first things I would say is that he/she should tread lightly in cyberspace.

Over the past few years, I have participated in a few Facebook groups organized by people with MS. I didn’t participate in some of them for long, however. It’s pretty astonishing how many people seem to use Facebook as their “go to,” for lots of things. Apparently, a fair number of MS patients fall into this group. If the information found were always correct and/or helpful, this might not be so bad. But as some of you reading this have learned, some of the information found via social media and the internet is undoubtedly anything but accurate or helpful. It’s true, just as in the bad old days, that misinformation and the “awfulizing” of MS still live large.

More important than being wary of social media or things that friends and acquaintances might say to you about this recalcitrant disease, do not take as medical gospel much of what you read on the internet. Not only do you have to consider the source, you also have to realize that MS is just as unique as is your very own fingerprint. No two people have the exact same symptoms, nor do they have the same disease course. In my experience, well-known websites staffed by bona fide medical people generally give a, well, general description of MS. There are still so many unknowns about MS that despite as many as 13 FDA-approved therapies for MS, scientists still seem to struggle with which people should get this drug, and who should get that drug. Efforts are underway to figure out how to personalize the drugs (and not only for MS), but that strategy is in its infancy.

Sadly, there are still some neurologists out there who either have a hopeless attitude about MS, or their bedside manner is atrocious. Both can be devastating for you, dear newly diagnosed person. I started to write “dear newly diagnosed YOUNG person,” but since in the past 10 years or so, I’ve known quite a few people who were diagnosed in their 40s or 50s, and even one man who was past 60 years of age when diagnosed, to assume that all newbies to the helter-skelter world of MS are young would be a grave mistake. I am nothing more than a layperson with no special medical training, and yet, my strongest advice to those just setting out on this journey would be that you must be your own advocate. I know! That’s not what you feel like hearing, and you may even resent me for saying it. But trust me, nobody cares more about what happens to you and your body than you do.

As you seek information about MS, you will come upon some that is heart-breaking. You will probably see and hear about people who have had a miserable course. I remember when I tried to avoid those people. It wasn’t because I thought it was contagious, but it was because I didn’t want to hear them as they railed against the unfairness that is at the heart of MS. I must hasten to add that even though I said I avoided “those people,” that isn’t an accurate assessment of what happened. I knew one woman in the first year after I was diagnosed, who was the leader of an MS support group for the newly diagnosed, and she used a scooter. She was such a kind person, a real leader in all the meaning of that word, that I don’t believe any of us looked at her in the scooter and ran for the hills. She offered resources when she could, but she listened, she sympathized, she even shared a couple of times when she cried. But she ultimately was there for us, and we knew it. Nobody else could have understood so well what the deepest fears of every one of us were. Other groups in which I’ve participated consisted mostly of a lot of complaining about the difficulties of having MS, and those, my friends, are legion. You may already have experienced some of those. If so, then right now, please do whatever you have to, to keep your sanity. I remember soon after getting the diagnosis, my family and I were on a cross-country trip, and we were about to enter a long tunnel. I had a sudden thought and was terrified that when we came out of the tunnel, I might be blind. That didn’t happen. As far as I know, nobody has something that happens THAT rapidly. Take a deep breath. You don’t have to get everything figured out today, or tomorrow, or next week.

One more point about finding information about MS on the internet. Along with great strides in therapies for MS, there have been many that fall in the realm of CAM, or complementary, alternative and integrative health measures you may try. In this area you may find some relief. You also may find some very strident people who insist that you must never eat X, or always eat Y, or maybe if you do THIS, but stop doing THAT, you will be cured. Read, research, try to vet the proponent of the ideas you consider. Talk to your doctor about it. There are those who stand to profit from banking on your fears. The truth is, that at this very point in your life when you likely are feeling the most vulnerable ever, you will be called to muster up your best intelligence-gathering efforts, and your ability to discern what makes sense and seems likely to benefit you. You can rise to this challenge. And you will probably be called to do so again and again. A better way of describing what you need to do is to be ever vigilant, ever on the quest, but always remain hopeful.

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