You probably know Selma Blair for her performances in movies like "Cruel Intentions" and "Legally Blonde." But the actress recently announced she's embarking on perhaps the biggest role of her life. "I have #multiplesclerosis," she wrote on Twitter last week, going on to say, "I am in an exacerbation."
In medicine, "exacerbation" typically means an increase in the severity of the symptoms of a disease. For those living with MS, this could mean vision loss, pain, fatigue, and impaired coordination.
Selma, who was first diagnosed less than three months ago, revealed to her fans writing, "I fall sometimes. I drop things. My memory is foggy. And my left side is asking for directions from a broken GPS."
"I know the feeling all too well," says 27-year-old Stephanie White, a patient of the MS Center at Holy Name Medical Center. She first noticed these symptoms when she was a freshman in college. "I went to the doctor and he said it was multiple sclerosis. I said, ‘What?'" she recalls, still somewhat in disbelief.
Yet, multiple sclerosis is the most widespread disabling neurological condition of young adults around the world, according to the National MS Society. An estimated 2.3 million people are living with the disease globally, and 200 new cases are diagnosed each year in the United States.
"Multiple sclerosis attacks the central nervous system, disrupting the flow of information between the body and the brain," explains Mary Ann Picone, MD, medical director of the MS Center at Holy Name Medical Center. "It's basically a mistake in the immune system."
Although the exact cause is still unknown, Dr. Picone says MS is the result of a combination of genetics and the environment, causing the body's immune system to go awry. The end result is typically problems with vision, balance, coordination, walking, and memory.
"There are different forms of MS, including relapsing, secondary, and primary," explains Dr. Picone. "They vary depending on whether you are male or female, how much myelin [fatty tissue that protects the brain's nerve cells] is damaged, and how many of these lesions are on the brain."
Because there are many types of MS, it has not been easy to treat in the past. Today, there are many treatment options. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved oral therapies, injections, and intravenous therapies for MS.
"Since being diagnosed, I have tried several treatments," says Stephanie, who is now the proud mother of a beautiful and healthy 16-month-old boy. "I'm now on a new drug called Ocrevus, which is administered by infusion twice a year. The drug, along with eating right and exercising regularly, has helped to significantly decrease my symptoms."
Holy Name was the site of a clinical trial for Ocrevus, which is used to treat relapsing MS and primary progressive MS.
Not only are new medications decreasing MS symptoms, but clinical trials show they can also slow the progression of relapsing MS, says Dr. Picone. "Ocrevus enables us to treat MS in a whole new direction. Patients can actually forget they are living with MS, and that's what we strive for."
Selma says she thinks she had gone undiagnosed with MS for 15 years. That can happen, says Dr. Picone. "The symptoms can be vague: sometimes you feel some numbness in your arms or legs, you're tired, maybe a little off balance. The patient may think it's all in his or her head, or a doctor may miss the early warning signs."
But early detection is important. "Time is of the essence," says Dr. Picone. "The longer you wait, the greater the loss of myelin and disruption of the nerve fibers and tissue, which can result in more permanent damage."
Selma Blair closed her message to fans writing, "I am in the thick of it, but I hope to give some hope to others."
Dr. Picone's grateful message to her is: "There is hope, Selma, there is so much hope today. It starts with spreading the word about MS. Having people like you speak publicly about the disease can make a huge impact."
She adds that hope also comes from the fact that her waiting room is no longer filled with people in wheelchairs, thanks to all the new treatment options.
"Our goal is to keep people walking," she says. People, like Stephanie who isn't just walking, she's chasing after her toddler and wants newly diagnosed patients like Selma to keep her chin up."Mindset is everything," says Stephanie. "Shifting your mindset and taking control of the things you can control, like fueling your body with nutritious foods, exercising, and listening to what your body needs, makes a significant difference."
Anyone can develop MS at any age, but most people receive diagnoses between the ages of 20 and 50. The symptoms, severity, and duration can vary from person to person. If you or someone you love would like to find out more about MS, please call the MS Center at Holy Name, 201-837-0727, or visit www.holyname.org/MSCenter