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Fighting multiple sclerosis

Sarah Kelsey is a lifestyle writer, editor and spokesperson based in Toronto. She was the editor of AOL/The Huffington Post Canada’s StyleList, Style and Living sites. Today, she's a freelancer writing for some of North America’s top pub...

An olympic fight against MS

If you've been diagnosed with a serious illness, you know how hard it can be to fight back. Exhaustion, symptoms and a roller coaster of emotions can get in the way of positive thinking. But not for US cycling champion Maureen Manley, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) at 26, while she was making plans to compete in the Barcelona Olympics. Her symptoms progressed rapidly: The olympic athlete lost her ability to see, walk and cycle. Rather than accept defeat, she kept a positive attitude and turned into an inspiration we can all admire.

Maureen ManleySheKnows.com: Maureen, you were young when you were diagnosed with MS. What was your initial reaction?

Maureen Manley: I was shocked and scared. It felt surreal to have this diagnosis and to have my body doing strange things. I had been an athlete all my life -- my body always worked for me so well. But I was determined to continue to race, if that was possible. I was also determined to do what I could to fight the illness, even though there were no drug therapies available at the time.

SheKnows.com: How did you cope with the quick onslaught of symptoms? What gave you strength?

Maureen Manley: Friends and family helped me cope. My determination to learn and grow also helped tremendously. My spirituality gave me the sense that something good would eventually come out of the disease.

SheKnows.com: In seeking treatment, what did your doctors recommend?

Maureen Manley: When I was first diagnosed, there weren't any treatments for MS. They couldn't recommend anything.

Within a year of my diagnosis, high dose intravenous (IV) steroids – not the performance-enhancing kind, but the immune-depressing type – became available. They scared me, but I needed them. They helped me get my vision back, and I could walk better after the infusions. It certainly wasn't a cure or lasting fix, but they helped.

Then, in 1996, after having my son, I was ready to begin drug therapy with one of the newer drugs on the market. My doctor educated me on my choices. There were three available at the time. After some thought and conversations with my family, I chose the therapy I felt best about. Now, over 12 years later, I am extremely happy with my decision.

SheKnows.com: What tips can you give people diagnosed with a serious illness? How can they preserve their mobility, motivation and way of life?

Maureen Manley: You are your own best advocate. Find a great doctor and learn as much as you can. Educating yourself about what you can do will give you a sense of control over the situation. Stay determined to take care of yourself and to build a life you desire, in spite of your circumstances. Learn to relax and take time for yourself. Pay attention to what makes you happy and feel alive.

Keep moving with what you can safely do. Exercise is medicine. Always take the time to check in with yourself and reflect on how you're doing physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. And, most important, never give up. When needed, I remember my favorite childhood book (okay, it's still my favorite book), The Little Engine That Could. I repeat the mantra, "I think I can, I think I can, I think I can."

SheKnows.com: What has the experience been like for you?

Maureen Manley: This 18-year experience has not been an easy one. With that being said, if it had been easy, I wouldn't have the knowledge, experience or wisdom I have now.

Remaining determined to meet the challenges of MS and live a big, rich and full life beyond the disease has led me to learn a lot about the mind/body connection, complementary medicines, the sciences of motivation and other forces behind the creation of health and well-being.

I also have a deeper understanding of what truly brings vitality, meaning and purpose to life. These things include, love, connection, laughter and caring to make a difference in the world.

SheKnows.com: How do you feel today?

Maureen Manley: Today, I'm feeling great. I recently did a fast-paced metric century with a group of great friends. I plan to continue to train. I'll keep listening to my body and give it what it needs (nutrition and/or rest). I'll also reflect on what I'm doing. If something continues to bring vitality and joy to my life, I'll know I'm on track. I'm also looking forward to more cycling events this summer. A few of those will raise money and awareness of MS.

If you or someone you love has MS, visit NationalMSSociety.org for more information about the disease and to get involved in a local chapter or fundraising opportunity.

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