Laurie Denison jokes that a multiple sclerosis (MS) diagnosis was her “40th birthday gift.”
“Not really the birthday gift you want to boast about,” she says.
Laurie, who lives south of Pittsburgh, was diagnosed with MS almost two decades ago. She’s lived with the complex neurological disease every day since then, adapting her life to deal with the challenges MS causes.
MS affects people in different ways. For Laurie, it causes her problems with mobility. But thanks to a strong support system and her own will, she moves forward every day with a positive mindset.
That positivity has helped her deal with not only her MS, but also her husband Eric’s battle with throat cancer and her own battle with breast cancer.
“I think I learned about how much you need other people and how much other people need you,” she says. “People want to help you, so it’s better for you to allow that to happen and not fight it. I mean, you want to be better. But some things you can’t be better at. You have to go through it.
“You can’t avoid the hill. You have to go over it.”
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‘I Wanted to Attack It’
It was almost two decades ago when Laurie found out about her MS.
She was chaperoning her son Alec’s kindergarten field trip, sitting with him at the back of the bus. The bus went over a curb, jolting them.
“I flew out of my seat and landed on the emergency exit,” Laurie says. “I hit my head, and then I had a drop.”
Laurie didn’t feel right after the incident, so she went to the hospital and had an MRI of her brain.
The scan showed Laurie had MS, a disease that affects the central nervous system. MS interferes with the signals the brain and spinal cord send to each other and to the rest of the body.
Nearly 1 million people in the United States suffer from MS. It can cause different symptoms in different people, including problems with vision, movement, balance, strength, and cognition. It also can lead to mood disorders like anxiety and depression.
“It’s a tough battle,” says Rock Heyman, MD, director, Multiple Sclerosis Care Center, UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital. “In some ways, MS and spinal cord or head injuries can cause similar problems. Unlike an injury, MS is a disease that too often repeatedly attacks the brain or spinal cord.
“These attacks may occur even when the person with MS is taking care of themselves — exercising, following a healthy lifestyle, and taking their medicine — trying to do their best to be healthy. People are forced to adapt not just to the initial deficits that lead to a diagnosis, but to the possibility of even more difficulty in the future.”
Although Laurie says she was experiencing some problems before her diagnosis, she assumed they were just signs of aging.
The MS news came as a surprise. But Laurie realized she had to stay positive.
“I thought, ‘OK, I can make a choice right now: Am I going to attack this, or am I going to let it attack me?'” she recalls. “And I wanted to attack it. Being sad doesn’t work well for anybody.”
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‘Everybody Around Me Is Positive Toward Me’
Laurie was born with a dislocated hip and wore braces and casts on her leg until she was 5 years old.
Although she overcame that condition, MS affected her mobility again.
“When I was first diagnosed, I couldn’t walk up and down the steps in the house,” she says. “So my husband would have to carry me up and down the steps. And I kept thinking to myself, OK, I can’t keep doing this — I’ve got to be able to move better.”
There is no cure for MS, but people can manage their symptoms or slow the disease’s progression with medicines. Physical therapy, exercise, and a healthy diet also can help.
“You have to adjust your life for what you have,” she says. “Everybody’s fed this plate and you have to deal with it. And it’s the plate I have, and it’s full. And so I have to move everything around so that it can work.”
Dr. Heyman, Laurie’s doctor for many years, says she takes a proactive approach to her MS treatment.
When the first medicine Laurie tried didn’t make her feel well, she looked into other options. She weighed the risks and benefits of each potential treatment.
“She’s never complained,” Dr. Heyman says. “She’s always interested in what she should be doing. She weighs the advice she’s given and almost always decides to go ahead in a very logical, steady way, without any drama. When she’s shown difficulty in life, she makes the changes she needs to do and goes ahead.”
Laurie takes an active approach to manage her mobility problems as well. She uses devices like a cane or walker to move around. And she especially enjoys working out in the pool.
“Water is awesome because I feel totally normal in the pool,” she says. “I can walk and move like normal.”
Laurie’s support system also helps. That support system begins with her husband Eric, daughters Julia and Madaliene, and son Alec. Julia, who was a child when Laurie was diagnosed, now works as a nutritionist at UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital.
In addition to her immediate family, Laurie’s extended family and friends help her just by staying positive.
“Everybody around me is positive toward me,” Laurie says. “And you know, when I made the decision [about] whether I wanted to go the low road or the high road, I guess it helped because people are kind of inspired by me.”
‘I Have to Really Be Present With Myself’
MS wasn’t the only medical challenge Laurie and her family faced.
About five years after her MS diagnosis, Laurie’s husband Eric was diagnosed with throat cancer.
“That was an awful time,” Laurie says. “That treatment was killer. It was short, but it was chemo and radiation — he couldn’t talk, couldn’t eat.”
The family faced the challenge of Eric’s cancer head-on. With the strength of the family providing support as he got treatment at UPMC, Eric recovered.
About 5 years later, Laurie faced another challenge herself: breast cancer.
At that point — more than a decade into her battle with MS — Laurie wasn’t fazed by her cancer diagnosis. She believed in her own strength and the strength of her family to help her overcome it. Laurie underwent surgery and radiation for her cancer at UPMC and recovered.
“That was like a hiccup in life because MS is so much worse than the breast cancer,” she says.
“Because with the cancer, they took it out, they radiated it, and then it was all gone. The MS doesn’t go away. So every day I wake up in the morning and I have to think, OK, how am I going to approach today? And what am I going to do? And I have to work it all out. And then I get going with my day, but I have to really be present with myself.”
‘She’s As Solid As Anyone I Can Think Of’
Unlike her cancer, Laurie’s MS can’t be cured. It’s an ongoing battle.
Every month, Laurie gets an infusion of the monoclonal antibody natalizumab to help prevent new attacks and increasing disability.
Although the MS affects Laurie’s mobility and she experiences other symptoms like fatigue, she says she hasn’t had depression. Instead, she takes an active approach to treat and manage the disease.
“Way back when, when you got the diagnosis of MS, they said, OK, you go to the chair over there and just sit there, and we’ll feed you and the likes of that,” she says. “And I’m not like that as a person. I’m not like that as a soul. So I had to approach it aggressively.”
That attitude — not letting the disease define her — can help others living with MS, Dr. Heyman says. He’s seen Laurie talk to and support other patients when she visits the hospital for her infusions. It’s important to Laurie that she continues to help others in her situation.
“It’s bringing the right mentality to the battle, so to speak, and having support — both her family support from her children and husband and also from a group of friends,” Dr. Heyman says. “We all face different battles behind the scenes, but she’s as solid as anyone I can think of. She has her support system in place, but she’s very, very tough herself.”
The UPMC Department of Neurosurgery is the largest academic neurosurgical provider in the United States. We perform more than 11,000 procedures each year. We treat conditions of the brain, skull base, spine, and nerves, including the most complex disorders. Whether your condition requires surgery or not, we strive to provide the most advanced, complete care possible. Our surgeons are developing new techniques and tools, including minimally invasive treatments. U.S. News & World Report ranks neurology and neurosurgery at UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside as among the best in the country. We also rank among the top neurosurgery departments in the U.S. for National Institutes of Health funding, a benchmark in research excellence.