Karen Cooper, MSW, LICSW: “I Can’t Have MS!”

Updated May 23, 2014

karen1a-1144647In the fall of 2010 I was diagnosed with MS. This was definitely not part of my life plan. Numbness in the hand was the initial symptom, but throughout the years prior there were probably signs of its arrival. After several tests (MRI’s, lumbar puncture, blood tests), the diagnosis was confirmed.

I had brought a little boy from Africa into my home to receive medical care one year prior. His caregiver from Africa had recently left and I was now alone trying to manage all of his needs and work full time. He has cerebral palsy and needs total care. I wanted to be an active, fun and capable mother for him. “I can’t have MS,” I thought!

My lifestyle had caught up with me. I worked incessantly as a social worker during the week and at a hospital on weekends. I was managing a non-profit organization to help children with physical and cognitive disabilities in Africa, but not managing my stress. I ate fast food between client visits and habitually drank Diet Coke. I was usually too tired at night to cook a meal so I ate whatever was quick and easy. In the mornings it was mochas and cappuccinos to get caffeinated. I never found time to exercise and always made excuses that I was too tired. I denied that I was overweight by getting upset when others tried to help me. Right away the doctors started me on IV steroids and Interferon injections. I was out of work for over one month. As I struggled against depression, I was surrounded by family and friends who helped my son and me get by, yet something was missing. I didn’t smoke or drink, and did what the doctors told me to do but I was slowly ruining my body with the food and beverage choices I made every day.

I returned to work and pretended that I was fine. I tried to get to bed early – no easy task because I returned home as a caregiver. Despite my attempts I was feeling more and more fatigued, dragged down by my weight, and frustrated with myself. I had migraines, irritable bowel issues, and acid reflux. I was becoming a mess.

In July of 2011 I had had enough. I knew I needed to make lifestyle changes. I received the MS Society Newsletter but rarely read it. Partially because I didn’t have the time, but I also didn’t really want to focus on my MS or hear depressing stories. Perusing the newsletter in spite of this I came upon an article: “MS and Diet Study. Travel Costs Included.” My heart started to pound and I got excited. Learn how to eat healthy and travel for free? Sounded like a win/win situation. Little did I know how life-changing my next phone call would be.

I immediately called Courtney Zerizef at Oregon Health and Science University. She told me about the study, I applied, and was accepted. I really had no idea what a “vegan, low fat diet” entailed, but I was excited!

Unfortunately a few days later I was in tears as I was told I would be in the “control group.” I wanted to learn about the diet, but the next year was filled with continued unhealthy eating, though I did start regular exercise during this time. I traveled to Oregon every few months and was weighed and tested. While the exercise definitely helped, I knew I needed more. I couldn’t wait until this year was over.

In August of 2012 I traveled to Santa Rosa for the McDougall 10-day diet training. The few days before I left I ate as much junk as I could. I knew it would be a long time, possibly never, before I had those foods again. I knew a change was coming. As I participated in the training I felt my body resist the reversal of long-standing unhealthy habits (especially coming off the daily caffeine), but I could also feel myself getting more and more motivated to change my life. Dr. McDougall and his staff presented things in a manner that gave me confidence I could continue with these lifestyle changes once I returned home. It helped that I developed deep friendships at the program that have become my extended support “village” ever since.

karen2a-5361333I can’t say the first few months were easy but I can say that I really had no desire to go back to eating the way I did. I still don’t. I love the food I eat. For the first year I did not eat anything off the diet, not even a bite. No way did I want to feel bloated, numb, in pain, irritable, or face a relapse. All of those things kept me on the path to good health. I remember being told by one presenter at the 10-day program that if I was at a party or a family gathering that I wasn’t going to starve or die if there was nothing for me to eat there. I learned to bring my own food, keep snacks in my purse, and call restaurants in advance to talk with chefs if needed. Vegetables, rice, pasta, potatoes, beans, some fruits, oatmeal, and water became the main ingredients in my dishes (plus added spices to make each dish special). On holidays I may have a small portion of one of my former favorite dishes but, truth be told, they don’t even taste good to me anymore!

I have gone from size 18 to size 4/5. I can buy small and extra small shirts which I never have been able to do. I have energy, sleep better, and I am off most of my medications. I am able to care for my wonderful son and I don’t think anyone would know that I am living with MS if I didn’t tell them. My life is forever changed and I will never go back to the old me. My son loves the diet, too. His favorite is the “Chunky Chili” recipe by Mary McDougall, and he would eat it every night if he could. I also incorporate Dr. McDougall’s instant lunches at work and that helps me avoid any unhealthy food options. The meals I prepare fill me up, and leave me feeling full of energy and satisfied.

The call I made in July of 2011 changed my life. I am truly a new person. I love going to see my doctors, because there is nothing they really need to do or change, everything is stable! I have also been able to provide copies of Dr. McDougall’s research to them, and although not everyone has been receptive, it has created discussion, which is a start. In addition, when I unexpectedly needed kidney stone surgery this past summer (likely due to my poor diet for most of my life), the doctor in urgent care asked me if I ever considered a plant-based diet. I told her to look at my file and see the changes that I have made. An alert came up on the computer due to my significant weight loss!

karen3-1700629For me, this isn’t all about appearance. It isn’t about trying a new diet fad. It’s about eating healthy and living a long life. It’s about keeping both my son and I strong and healthy. It’s about creating a future that will not include medications and hospitals. It’s about eating to live, not living to eat (my favorite quote from Dr. McDougall). I am a proud “Starchivore.” I can’t really say I’m thankful to have MS, but there has been a silver lining: it led me to Dr. McDougall, and to a healthier life.

Karen Cooper