Facing the diagnosis

MS is currently classified as an autoimmune disease of the central nervous system, which comprises the brain and spinal cord. While it is most often diagnosed in young adults aged late 20s and early 30s, younger children and older adults are also diagnosed with the disease. Despite decades of research, the cause of MS remains a mystery. There are theories that environmental, genetic, and biological factors all play a role in MS.

MS is unpredictable and can cause symptoms such as extreme fatigue, lack of coordination, weakness, tingling, impaired sensation, vision problems, bladder problems, cognitive impairment, and mood changes. Its effects can be physical, emotional, and financial.

“When I was diagnosed, my condition was pretty awful,” recalls McGugan, who suffers from relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis (RRMS). “After suffering through dizziness, memory loss and loss of concentration, I had a serious episode which led me to visit my doctor.”

Finding the right therapy

RRMS is characterized by clearly defined attacks of neurologic symptoms, much like the one experienced by Rona, and it is treatable. But the recent explosion in available therapies for RRMS has brought new complexities to treatment decisions faced by physicians. More and more, doctors need to anticipate the impact of a particular therapy on a specific patient before deciding on treatment sequencing.

McGugan worked closely with her physician, Dr. Jiwon Oh of St. Michael’s Hospital, to develop a multi-pronged approach to treatment that includes a disease modifying therapy and daily oral medications to manage symptoms, along with yoga every morning, which was suggested by McGugan’s physiotherapist.

“Dr. Oh recommended this therapy combination right after my first episode, and I’ve been on the same treatment for the past four-and-a-half years,” says McGugan. “It’s been a huge help to be on the right therapy, as I have not had any more episodes since I started treatment.”

Focusing on the positive

While there is currently no cure, every day researchers are learning more about what causes MS and are zeroing in on ways to prevent it. Studies funded by the MS Society are looking at whether certain risk factors, such as lifestyle habits, age, gender, or family history impact a person’s susceptibility to MS. Progress is being made every day and more new treatments are on the horizon.

“It is a huge motivating force and extremely rewarding to be able to see things that were just a concept at one point being applied every day in practice,” says Dr. Oh. “I continue to balance research responsibilities with my clinical duties because it directly benefits the patients in front of me.”

This particular patient, Rona McGugan, has always been one to look on the bright side. She is certainly very thankful to have a leader in MS research and treatment such as Dr. Oh based right here in Canada. And she is optimistic that the tremendous progress made in MS treatment over the past 20 years is just the beginning.

“You can never lose hope,” she says. “I’m thankful I’m in this treatment program because it’s been a great help to me and I have hope that things will get even better in the future.”