Rachael’s symptoms first appeared when she was at playgroup with her young daughter. Her hand went numb and she lost all sensation in her right hand side. It was a scary time for her and her family. Over the next few days the symptoms progressed; the numbness caused her to lose her balance, affected her speech and she had a range of sensory symptoms. She went to her doctor and everyone seemed confused as her symptoms continued. After several weeks she was finally referred to a neurologist.
She tried to carry on with her busy NHS job, as well as looking after her two young children and despite crushing fatigue and some continued numbness she took no sick leave.
Her neurologist referred her for a MRI scan which confirmed she had multiple lesions. She had a lumbar puncture to confirm her diagnosis of MS in 2012. After many months of uncertainty she was relieved in some ways that she hadn’t been given a life-threatening diagnosis.
All the same, the diagnosis was devastating, unexpected news. There was no hereditary link with MS in her family. The drawn out diagnosis had a huge impact on Rachael’s emotional well-being. She found the experience traumatic and lived in a constant state of anxiety. She had overwhelming fears that her daughter would have no memories of her mum ever being well. In addition, at the time, she was managing a lot - working in children’s mental health services which had its own challenges whilst coping with her own symptoms. She recalls high levels of anxiety and stress.
The advice Rachael received from her medical advisors was to carry on, to keep herself as well as possible, that she couldn’t stop the progression of the illness and to try not to worry too much. As a mental health expert, she knew professionally that stress has an impact on physical well-being. She started to ask herself, ‘What can I do?’.
Luckily for Rachael, she found Overcoming MS during diagnosis. She came across the website Overcoming MS and Professor George Jelinek’s evidence-based research. Being scientifically minded, she appreciated the rigour of the clinical and academic information, underpinned by the Swank study. Importantly for Rachael the OMS approach also included mindfulness and stress management.
"The Overcoming MS science made sense to me and it appeared to be having a good impact on people’s lives, supporting the research evidence. I I wanted to do all I could to remain well, and the OMS programme laid out tools with which I could do that. It made perfect sense!”
Rachael immediately started to change her lifestyle. She knew the stakes were so high and she quickly swapped to a plant-based, wholefood diet.
She knew stress was a huge trigger in her life so began taking ownership of her mindfulness through meditation. (She had considered herself as someone who thrived on stress - she was a busy, productive, achieving woman.)
"I am still who I am but I now understand it’s OK to take care of myself. I needed to find a way of managing my stress. I want to remain passionate and engaged but also not afraid to slow down and ask for help. My diagnosis, but also finding the OMS programme, has helped me to consider how I really want to live.”
Rachael knew her job wasn’t the best environment for her. She knew she needed to put herself and her family first to create a better balance in her life, to help her recover. She left her job in the NHS after 15 years and took up a position at Swansea University, as a researcher and senior lecturer.
Exercise also became an important part of Rachael’s life. She slowly started to walk more and practise yoga. She is now dedicated to regular exercise enjoying Crossfit, swimming and has completed several 10K runs. She is aiming to complete ten 10Ks before she is 50!
The biggest change Rachael has noticed is the improvement in her fatigue - this gradually improved over the first year and now is barely an issue at all. Her overall health has gradually improved since starting to follow the OMS programme (for over six years now) and she rarely has any MS symptoms. In 2017 she had a repeat MRI and she heard what every person diagnosed with MS wants to hear; her scan showed no evidence of disease activity (NEDA).
Rachael has further changed her work/life balance by relocating to live by the beautiful Welsh coast to be nearer relatives. Her whole family has an active outdoor life, with plenty of fresh air and sunshine. They enjoy swimming in the sea (whatever the temperature!), paddle boarding and walking the dog.
A self-proclaimed ‘massive foodie’, Rachael says the family eats so much better now. And as her children are growing up, she has returned to work full-time.
"The OMS programme provided me with a framework and practical tools to empower me to take control of my MS. My health is better than ever, I remain realistically optimistic and I want to share that hope of a healthy future with others. It is truly life-changing.”
Rachael has felt compelled to try and make others aware of what they can do to live well with MS, through raising awareness of OMS and lifestyle approaches to illness through a blog and on Instagram @myomslife. Rachel also facilitates at OMS retreats and conferences sharing her knowledge of clinical psychology.
Rachael Hunter, Swansea, Wales
Lumbar puncture (spinal tap) - The procedure of taking fluid from the spine in the lower back through a hollow needle, this is one of the ways MS can be diagnosed.
MS fatigue - One of the most common MS symptoms, it is an extreme form of tiredness, one which can be debilitating and overwhelming.
Swank’s Study - Roy Swank’s study published in the Lancet - ‘Effect Of Low Saturated Fat Diet In Early And Late Cases Of Multiple Sclerosis’. Swank followed 144 people with MS over 34 years and concluded in his Lancet paper that those who stuck to less than 20g of fat a day ‘showed significantly less deterioration and much lower death rates’.
MRI - MRI stands for magnetic resonance imaging, a diagnostic tool that offers the most sensitive, non-invasive way of imaging the brain and spinal cord and is the preferred imaging method for diagnosing MS a well as monitoring the course of the disease.
No evidence of disease activity (NEDA) - A new goal emerging in multiple sclerosis treatment. The aim is for people with relapsing remitting MS (RRMS) to reach a point where they are having no relapses, no increase in disability (as measured by EDSS) and no new or active (enhancing) lesions on their MRI scans.