With a few herniated discs in her lower back, 54-year-old Leslie chalked up her ongoing leg pain and tingling to old back issues and injuries. Then, one morning in July 2013, she woke up unable to feel her legs.
"We were traveling through Europe, and I was lying in bed next to my husband when I realized my legs were completely numb," she recalled. "My husband thought maybe it was my shoes, but I had a feeling it was something more. I eventually got out of bed, and we continued with our trip."
After returning home, Leslie visited her primary care doctor. When an MRI didn't offer immediate answers, she was referred to a neurosurgeon to see if the symptoms were linked to her herniated disks. With no apparent connection between the two, Leslie underwent MRI scans of her brain and cervical spine (neck). Then came a shock she never expected.
"The MRI showed a huge glob on my neck," she recalled. "The neurosurgeon thought it might be multiple sclerosis, so he highly recommended that I see Dr. Travis."
Lori Hendin Travis, MD, a neurologist at HonorHealth Neurology in partnership with Phoenix Neurological Associates, specializes in treating multiple sclerosis, among other neurological conditions. Leslie met with her in October 2013 for a thorough review of her medical imaging tests and analysis of her symptoms. Dr. Travis soon diagnosed Leslie with multiple sclerosis, an autoimmune condition that affects the central nervous system and ultimately interrupts nerve impulses between the brain and spinal cord.
Clinical trial features infusion-based drug
"Even with the diagnosis, I was hesitant to start treatment," Leslie said. "Then, I had an MS episode the very next day after I met with Dr. Travis. I was really feeling bad, and my legs felt heavy like cinder blocks."
That's when Leslie realized treatment was necessary.
"I started taking medication in the form of a daily pill," she said. "I felt better and didn't have any relapses for about two-and-a-half years."
When Leslie experienced her first relapse of MS symptoms in early 2016, she consulted Dr. Travis. After thoughtful consideration, Leslie enrolled in a clinical trial investigating the effectiveness of a new MS medication.
"The trial was for an infusion-based drug administered twice a year," Leslie noted.
The drug was successful in keeping Leslie's MS symptoms at bay. Upon completion of the trial, the drug received approval from the Food and Drug Administration. As a result, Leslie was able to continue treatment. To date, she's still receiving infusion therapy.
"I see Dr. Travis twice a year, and that's when I get my infusion," she said. "I'm on a maintenance level of the drug. I'm regulated and doing well."
Accepting a new normal
While treatment and routine monitoring from a neurologist are imperative for those living with multiple sclerosis, Leslie is proof that your outlook is equally important.
"I'm a pretty determined person, and I'm not willing to let the disease stop me from doing the things I want to do," she said. "I've had to learn to be honest with myself and accept that some things take more time now, but I'm not so hard on myself anymore."
Granting herself the grace to accept a new normal wasn't easy for the former triathlete. Leslie has replaced cycling, swimming and running with yoga and other physical activities aimed at building core strength and helping her stay balanced – physically and mentally.
"Balance is a big issue with MS, so I really focus on keeping my core strong and staying physically fit," said the active preschool teacher. "Early in my diagnosis, I asked Dr. Travis to write a prescription for me to see a physical therapist to address mobility and balance."
For Leslie, heading off the physical effects of MS was important. Guidance from a physical therapist seemed like an appropriate path.
"I'm not sure if it's common for patients to see a physical therapist, but I'd highly recommend it," she noted. "It helped me realize that MS does not have to be a completely life-altering disease. I continue to move and be active."
Just keep moving
Grateful for the clinical care and support she has received, Leslie encourages patients to not let MS cast a gray cloud over their lives and outlooks.
"There are so many opportunities and drugs available now that are prolonging mobility and keeping us moving as we get older," she explained. "You have to deal with the disease and figure out what works for you, but one of the most important things is to just keep moving."
While Leslie is fortunate to have a strong support system between her husband and family, she recognizes that not every MS patient is as lucky. For friends and family of individuals who have recently been diagnosed with MS, Leslie offers this advice: "Be patient and encouraging. Don't belittle someone. Continue to include them in activities and recreation, but understand that they might have limitations in terms of what they are able to do now compared to what they could do before their diagnosis."
If you're experiencing numbness in your legs or other neurological symptoms, find a neurologist.