"Diagnosed with MS; food became my medicine"
In 1989 I was 32 years old. It had been two years since I had
quit my 17-year smoking habit, and I had adopted a rigorous
physical fitness regimen. I truly felt on top of the world, and
nothing could stop me. In addition, having developed a greater
level of self confidence, I began life as a student again at a
local community college. All of these successes empowered me to
continue striving and believing in myself, something that had
not come easily to me before. This was an entirely new era for
me. Little did I know, however, that the confidence that had
blossomed within me would soon be tested.
To help curb my tobacco withdrawal cravings I had begun
working out at a gym, and was surrounded by very strong, fit
people. One such person was a former Marine drill instructor and
Mr. World contender who became my personal coach. Each day, he
would encourage and educate me about fitness. He made the
experience fun for me: a new addiction had been spawned. During
this time I was also learning how to make healthful dietary
changes, and I did so gladly. Living in California at the time,
with fresh produce not only abundant, but available year-round,
helped making dietary changes easier. I had never felt so good
in my entire life. What a revelation!
And then I woke up on April 17, 1989, one of the darkest,
most life-altering days of my life. As I got out of bed I was
shocked to find that my left leg collapsed under me. It felt
heavy and would not support my weight. I erroneously passed it
off as a pinched nerve. My doctor couldn’t find any cause for
it, so it became a "watch and wait" situation. I dragged that
leg around for more than six weeks. I continued to work out but
was unknowingly worsening my condition every day. Almost as soon
as this first symptom began to wane, a new symptom of tingling
on the right side of my body began. More doctor visits and tests
were ordered, but nothing was determined.
Following this I had roughly six weeks of very odd sensations
on one side of my body that couldn’t be explained. While
additional tests were conducted, I continued to believe it was
all fairly harmless. How could anything bad be happening to me
now? I was certainly on a high of optimism, so much so that I
ignored all the signs (tingling, burning, fatigue) my body was
giving me and continued my gym workouts. Nothing was going to
When the fourth symptom—very fuzzy eyesight in one
eye—occurred, I was sent to an eye doctor. He diagnosed me with
optic neuritis and suggested that I see a neurologist as soon as
possible. My family doctor scheduled an appointment with a
neurologist in Phoenix, Arizona at a well-known neurological
institute. My doctor warned me ahead of time that the physician
he was referring me to did not have a pleasant bedside manner
but that he was very proficient in his field.
How can one hour, one day, change a person’s life so
dramatically? The MRI was performed and the follow-up meeting
with the neurologist went something like this: "The MRI shows
that you have multiple sclerosis. You are among the top third of
the worst cases we’ve ever seen here. You have a few good years
left." The neurologist delivered the news with as much
compassion and sensitivity as a weatherman might deliver the
day’s highs and lows. Talk about devastating! The fact that I
had had four exacerbations within a five-month time frame
further made for a dismal prognosis.
My mother had died of systemic Lupus at the age of 33, and
here I was at 32 years old thinking, "I guess this is it." When
I asked if there were any dietary changes I could make to help
my symptoms, an emphatic "No" was given. I was told that my
exacerbations would be treated with high doses of steroids given
in the hospital. Having watched my mother go through her
agonizing decline, I wanted nothing to do with hospitals or
doctors ever again.
Fortunately, within a short amount of time, I discovered Dr.
Roy Swank, MD, Ph.D, the head professor of neurology at Oregon Health
Sciences University. I learned that he had studied multiple
sclerosis (MS) since 1946 and, based on his scientific findings,
had successfully treated MS patients through a healthful diet.
His track record and credentials were impeccable. I was truly
fortunate that he was still practicing in his 70’s. As
broken-spirited and emotionally shattered as I was when I first
met Dr. Swank, his words to me were the most healing balm for
the soul there was: "If you do as I say, Donna, you can live a
normal life." With those words he gave me back my life. I was a
patient of his for the remaining ten years of his practice.
Hearing his success stories about controlling the progress of
the disease through dietary measures was inspiring. I studied
the program intensely. I ate a very low saturated fat diet (15
grams max a day) and ate lots of clean, whole foods. I didn’t
look at it as a diet but as a lifestyle, one that I
enthusiastically embraced. Also, to help reduce my symptoms, I
was instructed not to do exercise that would overheat my body’s
core temperature, and to reduce stress as much as possible while
making time for daily rest breaks. As time passed in that first
year, I not only regained all the functions that I’d lost, but I
felt increasingly better.
No one can believe how this program has stabilized my health.
When I share my story, most people want to hear the details,
which I am happy to share. I feel that if I don’t talk about my
journey at least once a day, I’m not doing my job. I now search
out open-minded physicians—not closed-minded authoritarians—who
will work with me as a partner in my health care. Nowadays when
I learn that someone has been diagnosed with MS and put on a
drug protocol, it saddens me greatly. Many patients are
shattered, as I was after my diagnosis, and feel that they must
follow their doctor’s advice. To them I say, okay, but
incorporate a healthy diet as well. For every day lost, it’s
going to be harder to regain ground.
Multiple sclerosis, a disease of the central nervous system,
affects around 350,000 Americans (mostly Caucasians, and more
often women than men). Its numbers are higher in populations
where typical diets are comprised of beef, butter, cheese, and
other saturated fats. The addition of so many trans-fats has
also escalated numbers. MS is often treated with one of three or
four very expensive and toxic drugs. Dr. Swank’s work, however,
is completely nutrition-based and carries no dangerous side
It’s been 18 years now since I first met with Dr. Swank, and
today I do not use any kind of aids or devices (such as a
walker, cane, or braces), but I do take the daily rest breaks
that he strongly advised (to allow my body’s compromised nerves
adequate time to rest and recover). I am grateful for each day
of health that I enjoy, and only occasionally do I feel some
extremity tingling (when I’ve allowed myself to overdo it
I volunteer at a local hospital and cook healthful and tasty
meals for my very supportive husband and myself. Keeping to a
simple diet of brown rice, legumes, fresh vegetables and fruits,
as well as minimizing fats, has done a world of good. I also
volunteer for the Swank foundation as a mentor, via email, to
the people who find their way to the Swank program or to those
who simply need a comforting, friendly ear.
To Dr. McDougall, a heartfelt "Thank you!" for your dedicated
efforts to continue the work of Dr. Roy Swank. The legend lives
on because of you. I’ve since adopted Dr. McDougall’s low-fat,
plant-based diet as another layer to my health restoration and
preservation. To quote Hippocrates, the Father of Medicine, "Let
your food be your medicine and your medicine be your food." This
is certainly the message in the work of Dr. Swank and Dr.
Note: Visit Dr. Swank’s website at
For more information see my Hot
Topics on Multiple Sclerosis.
Dr. McDougall's Comments
cancer, multiple sclerosis is the diagnosis most people hope
they never hear from their doctor. The course of this disease is
very difficult to change and the outcomes are often dismal; as a
result, doctors have told me that they try to avoid caring for
people with MS—and after knowing the statistics, you will
understand why. Even with the use of the most modern
medications, costing $20,000 a year, the future prospect is:
half of these patients are unable to walk unassisted, or are
bedridden, or wheelchair bound or dead within 10 years of
Fortunately, the future would be very different—like in Donna
McFarland’s case—if doctors practiced sensible diet-based
medicine. For more than 60 years the rich Western diet has been
known to cause of MS, and for more than 50 years a low-fat, near
vegetarian, diet has been known to arrest or cure MS. The
principal discoverer of "the diet-MS connection" is Roy Swank,
MD, former head of the University of Oregon Medical School
Neurology Department (for 23 years), who has cared for over 5000
patients with MS during his career.
More information about Dr. Swank
Dr. Swank wrote in 1959 in his book Low-fat Diet, "Gluttony
and chronic degenerative diseases have been linked in the minds
of both laymen and scientists for many years. The saying, ‘to
dig your grave with your teeth’ probably has its origins in
antiquity; but, in the prosperous areas of the Western world
during the past few decades, the maxim has taken on real and
About 20 years ago, during one of my many visits with Dr.
Swank at his Oregon Medical School office, I asked him, "Why is
it that when MS patients ask their doctors about changing their
diet, they are told this is quackery? And why does the MS
Society offer a similar message? You have published in the
world’s most respected journals that a simple, cost-free diet
can stop this disease. Yet, they summarily dismiss you and your
He leaned back in his chair, took a moment for thought, and
then explained, "You know, most people in this country expect to
be cured by a pill, and have a cure that is almost
instantaneous. With the low-fat diet, the people actually have
to work to get better, and have to cure themselves. And as far
as the MS Society is concerned, John, they don't mention it
because they didn't discover it. It wasn't their research
dollars that found this treatment. So they're not going to tell
anybody. I discovered it in my small office here, in the
basement of the University of Oregon Medical School."
So it is not just money that keeps people from highly
effective dietary cures; egos are also involved—the well-known
business doctrine, "Not Invented Here," is working to keep you
and your family sick. Self-centered people think, "If I didn’t
invent it then there is no real reason for me to promote it,
especially when there is no fame or fortune for me."
The scientific research published by Dr. Swank shows that if
this disease is detected early, by following a low-fat diet,
there is a 95% chance of NOT dying of MS or its complications
over the next 34 years.1
Even people who have had multiple sclerosis for a long time, and
have already suffered severe damage, will slow the progression
of their disease after a change to a low-fat diet. I once asked
Dr. Swank, "When followed strictly, how often does the diet
fail?" His answer was, "Only 1 in 200 people would not benefit."
Dr. Swank is now 98 years-old; his pioneering work is left
for a new generation of scientists to research, doctors to
prescribe, and patients to follow. Over the past four years I
have raised over $600,000 to start an investigation to prove the
benefits of a low-fat diet for MS patients, using modern
scientific tools (MRI scans and disability evaluations performed
by neurologists). By doing research comparable to that used by
the pharmaceutical companies to sell highly toxic, relatively
I hope to show Dr. Swank was right all along, and change the way
medicine is practiced.
Would you like to help me?
Donations for this study can be made to The McDougall
Research & Education Foundation A Tax Deductible Corporation - a
501 (c) (3), Employer ID # 82-0573876.
Click here for more information on
1) Swank RL, Dugan BB. Effect of low saturated fat diet in
early and late cases of multiple sclerosis. Lancet. 1990 Jul
2) Pittock SJ. Interferon beta in multiple sclerosis: how
much BENEFIT? Lancet. 2007 Aug 4;370(9585):363-4.
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