Wednesday, 6 August 2008

On a more serious note...

Finding that you or someone close to you has been diagnosed with a long-term illness can be a bewildering experience. Suddenly, a disease that you were aware of, but not really knowledgeable about, invades your life, and challenges potentially every assumption, every plan, you'd made about the future.

When that happens, most people (and me, too) have an initial period of shock and confusion, to say nothing of emotions like fear and anger. But, as the haze starts to clear a little, you find yourself asking questions, wanting to know more, to understand more, and to have someone listen to your questions, hopes and fears.

And that's where a charity like the MS Society comes in.

The MS Society is the UK's largest charity for people affected by Multiple Sclerosis (MS) - over 85,000 people in the UK - making it the most common disabling neurological condition affecting young adults. The Society provides help for those with the disease and their friends and families, as well as supporting a wide-ranging research programme into new treatments, and understanding the disease better.

MS itself is caused when the body's own immune system attacks the protective covering of the nerves (known as the myelin sheath). This causes the nerves to malfunction, typically leading to loss of muscle control and sensation, but in more serious cases affecting things like memory and sight. Why it occurs in some people, but not in others, and what triggers it, are still the subjects of research. After an attack, the minute scars or scleroids on the nerves and in the brain can be identified (albeit with some difficulty) by certain types of scan: hence the name, multiple sclerosis.

However, diagnosis is a quite complicated process, as every case seems to be slightly different, and involves a number of different medical tests. There are also several different forms of MS - some involving periods of recovery with occasional relapses (relapsing-remitting MS) and others which involve a slow but continuous progression.

The Society publishes a wide range of very helpful leaflets about the condition, and how it may impact on someone's life: from problems with specific medical issues, to how it can affect travel insurance, the sorts of treatments available and what financial support the Government provides in what circumstances. These, and the telephone and e-mail helplines, are available to all, not just members.

For members, there are local MS Society groups around the country where they can meet others and find out about their experiences and get support. Membership also comes with a regular magazine with more information, news on latest research and articles on how it affects individual members; and an on-line 'Members Zone', with more information and advice.

All this help can be invaluable for people newly diagnosed with MS and their friends and family, as it can help to understand what can - from a purely medical standpoint - seem a baffling, complicated and - let's face it - a frightening - disease.

Membership is open to anyone who has an interest in the work of the society, and costs just £5 per year.

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