Janesville walk offers support to people with multiple sclerosis

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Anna Marie Lux
Saturday, May 3, 2014

JANESVILLE—Jodi Swanberg suspected the numbness around her torso and her stumbling were due to an illness familiar to her family.

So when her neurologist diagnosed her with multiple sclerosis in 2011, Jodi was not surprised. Twenty years earlier, her sister also was diagnosed with the disease.

On Sunday, May 4, Jodi will be among an estimated 700 people in a fund-raising walk at Janesville's Palmer Park. She is part of Team Beck, which includes more than 20 family members and friends. At least 65 teams will participate.

The goal of the walk is to raise $75,000 for national research and local services to the more than 11,000 people in Wisconsin with multiple sclerosis.

“The walk also provides support to people with MS,” Jodi said. “It is a way to hear their stories, what they are going through and what they are doing about it.”

Because of the illness, Jodi has severe fatigue, decreased vision and numbness from her chest to her waist.

“It has changed my life,” she said. “Before I was diagnosed, I did not even wear glasses. Now, my eyesight has diminished greatly. One of my feet keeps dropping down instead of moving. And I have a hard time remembering things.”

Depending on the day, Jodi can walk. But her husband, her brothers and her daughter will take turns pushing her in a wheelchair during the fundraiser. The 49-year-old owns her own housekeeping company and used to work 50-plus-hour weeks.

 “I have had to delegate responsibilities that I used to have,” Jodi said. “I still handle the business end of things, but I don't physically go out and clean anymore.”

She explains that MS affects every person differently.

“Some people have no symptoms at all,” she said. “Others have trouble walking, body fatigue, urinary issues or a combination of those things. Cognitive issues, like losing your train of thought, are big for me and a lot of people.”

Multiple sclerosis is a disease in which the body's immune system mistakenly attacks the myelin, or protective coating around nerve fibers in the central nervous system. The central nervous system is made up of the brain, spinal cord and optic nerves. When any part of the myelin or nerve fiber is damaged or destroyed, nerve impulses traveling to and from the brain and spinal cord are distorted or interrupted, producing a wide range of symptoms.

For unknown reasons, Wisconsin has a higher prevalence of multiple sclerosis than many areas of the country, according to the Wisconsin Chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

“We are looking at everything from viruses to the amount of sunlight that we are exposed to in the Northern Hemisphere as possible environmental factors,” said Colleen Kalt, president and chief executive officer of the state chapter. “The research is still occurring.”

When Kalt started with the organization 32 years ago, no treatments existed for multiple sclerosis.

“Now, we have 10 treatments that forestall disability in many people with MS,” she said. “Not all people react well to treatment medications, but we are working on it.”

She encourages people with MS and their families to tell their stories.

“In the old days, people would hide their diagnosis because of fear of discrimination,” Kalt said. “Now, because of better treatment and more encouragement from friends, people are breaking out of their shells and saying, 'I have this disease, but it is not controlling my life.'”

Still, more work remains to dispel misunderstanding about the disease.

“We have to continue to create awareness,” Kalt said. “We need to continue to keep up the funding on the federal level for all diseases that affect our loved ones.”

She praises all the people in today's walk.

“They have a direct connection to creating a world that is free of MS,” Kalt said. “It is a powerful thing, when a person stands up and says I am going to make a difference.”

Anna Marie Lux is a columnist for The Gazette. Her columns run Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264, or email amarielux@gazettextra.com.

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