Sunday, February 1, 2009

Happy February

February is one of my favorite months. Even thought it's usually pretty cold and where I live we're starting to be ready for warmer weather, February is still a great month. It's also probably the strangest months of the year. It has the least number of days, of course, so it gets stuck with the extra day that leap years thrust on us every four years.

It's a month of pink and white and red, of roses and of chocolate and other candy. It's a perfect month for a romantic. In my life, it even has three separate days for romance. Not only is Valentine's Day in February, but HoneyBear and I celebrate officially starting to date on February 12th and the anniversary of HoneyBear proposing to me on February 16th (the following year, in case you're wondering).

Unfortunately, my life has another anniversary of sorts marked each February--my diagnosis with multiple sclerosis. Just like the anniversary of our change from best friends to dating and the anniversary of our change from dating to engaged, this anniversary changed our lives dramatically.

My MS Life

I have multiple sclerosis. I have a chronic, incurable neurological disease in which my body attacks its own central nervous system. I was diagnosed in February, 2006. This is the story of my diagnosis.

February of 2006 followed a time of high levels of stress in our lives. I was in graduate school while working full time and also being mother to 2 small children, ages 5 and 2. HoneyBear had changed jobs in order to prepare to return to school himself, so finances were starting to become more strained. We had some other challenges that caused us to meet with a counselor. My job, particularly my relationship with my boss, had been a daily challenge, enough that I had recently quit and taken on a graduate assistantship--a good move career-wise, but certainly not financially. On top of all of that, HoneyBear had not too long before spent 8 days in the hospital, which I did not handle well emotionally. The multiple stresses finally caused my un-diagnosed neurological condition to go into overdrive.

I had already been having some problems, such as changes to my vision in my right eye (later determined to be optic neuritis, a common early symptom of multiple sclerosis). The summer before my diagnosis I had enough pain with the vision problems that I had visited a neurologist, who assumed it was migraines and tried treating me for that with no real improvement. The intensity of the problems abated, though, so I didn't pursue any further treatment.

One day in early February, with all of life's concerns weighing on me, I was planning to visit my ob-gyn due to some other problems I had been experiencing. Instead, I found myself in my doctor's office with complete numbness on the left side of my body, some difficulty talking and walking, and lots of fears. My doctor made arrangements for an emergency MRI under guidance from a neurologist, and I was also worked in to an appointment with the neurologist to read the results. Though the first thought was a stroke, that was a low probability because the muscles in my face still worked, they just felt numb to me.

When I arrived at my neurologist appointment, I was put through several physical tests--tests I have become accustomed to at each neurologist visit since my diagnosis. These tests confirmed changes to sensation in my left foot and changes to my reflexes on my left side, along with a significant foot drop on the left side when walking. Apparently, these were simply confirmation for the neurologist, who had seen my MRI scan already.

It turns out I was very blessed to have been connected to this neurologist, as he worked extensively with patients with multiple sclerosis. When we arranged for the MRI, he requested a specialized type of scan known as FLARE. This type of scan was apparently the best type of MRI for discovering the lesions associated with multiple sclerosis, but was not the standard scan used with MRI. When he showed us the results, there was little question--I had several places on my brain and a couple on my spinal cord indicative of my body attacking itself.

In diagnosing MS, however, several criteria had to be met. First, there had to be more than one location on the brain or spinal column of damage--literally multiple areas of sclerosis or scarring. There was also a time factor, in that there had to be multiple times of being affected by the disease. Though I had multiple lesions, since we could not absolutely state that I had experienced previous occurrences (though in looking back we knew absolutely of several times of illness that could be attributed to the disease), I was diagnosed as "probable MS," a scary and unsettling diagnosis. The disease itself was fearful to discover, but for the diagnosis to still not be definitive was difficult to handle.

Lots of corticosteroids got me through the initial attack, which lasted about two weeks, the "typical" length of time for a relapse. I soon started a disease-modifying drug and began the roller coaster of living with multiple sclerosis, including some eye scans and tests and an additional MRI, which gave enough evidence of activity that my diagnosis changed to "definite MS."

Now there are days that seem impossible. There are many more days, though, that are just days. Our family has been affected by this disease, but we have also learned to flow with it in many ways, trying to choose joy and continual hope. This is my MS life.