With her son in her arms, actress Selma Blair was honored in May at the Race to Erase MS gala in Beverly Hills.
Selma and her 7-year-old son, Arthur, wore matching custom outfits as she was awarded the 2019 Medal of Hope for her work raising awareness of multiple sclerosis, after her own diagnosis earlier last year.
“My dream is that I get to be a useful mom,” she told the audience and also said she was grateful to speak for so many people who don't get a chance to speak.
Every year, 10,000 new cases of multiple sclerosis are diagnosed in the United States, many of them, like Selma, are young people in the prime of their lives. “MS most commonly strikes between the ages of 20 to 40,” says Mary Ann Picone, MD, medical director of the MS Center at Holy Name Medical Center.
MS can have a tremendous impact on the course of these young patients' lives, from their relationships to their careers, because the disease demands so much of their energy and attention.
“Imagine having to think about every step you take, not being able to lift your own child or even take a walk without help and time to rest,” says Dr. Picone.
Now imagine having to do all that in the public eye. Selma stepped up to the gala's podium with the help of her friends and her cane. It was the same cane she debuted while walking the red carpet for the Oscars. “She looked beautiful and graceful, but her cane was not just another accessory. It represents persistence, patience, and even pain, the pain of what it can be like to live with MS,” says Dr. Picone.
On her own Instagram, where Selma has been very open about living with MS, she shared a photo taken after the Oscars with the caption “When my life flashes before my eyes, I want this portrait by @markseliger to be front and center.”
New Treatments Bring New Hope
In recent months, Selma has also written posts about how her medical treatments are taking a toll on her. There is no cure for multiple sclerosis. Treatment typically focuses on slowing the progression of the disease and managing symptoms.
But there is hopeful news right now, says Dr. Picone: “We have so many more treatment options that allow young MS patients to keep their busy lives on track.”
Multiple sclerosis is the most common autoimmune disease of the central nervous system. The disease disrupts the flow of information between the body and the brain.
While the exact cause is still not known, Dr. Picone says MS is the result of a combination of genetics and the environment, causing the body's immune system to go awry. The end result is typically problems with vision, balance, coordination, walking, and memory.
“There are different forms of MS, including relapsing, secondary, and primary,” explains Dr. Picone. “Disease expression varies depending on whether you are male or female, how much myelin [fatty tissue that protects nerve cells] is damaged, and how many lesions there are on the brain.” Because there are so many types of MS, it has not been easy to treat, but new treatments bring new hope.
“Our waiting room used to be filled with young people in wheelchairs," Dr. Picone says. But that is just not the case today. "We have oral therapies, injections, IV therapies - all of which can make a tremendous difference in a patient's life."
One of the newest oral medications is called Mavenclad. “This medication works by killing certain types of blood cells that attack the myelin in the brain and spinal cord so it slows down MS disease activity for a long period of time,” says Dr. Picone. “What's so great about this therapy is you take this oral drug for four five-day courses over a two-year period and this is hopefully enough to control the disease activity so patients wouldn’t need to be on any other disease-modifying treatment for the year. This simplifies treatment.”
Another new drug, called Mayzent, is also an oral medication. Clinical trials have shown it can reduce the risk of disability progression in patients with secondary progressive MS. “In addition, studies show Mayzent slows patients' brain shrinkage by 23 percent compared with a placebo, and it reduces patients' annual relapse rate after two years by 55 percent," says Dr. Picone.
As for the future, Dr. Picone says there’s also a study in the works of treatments that can target Epstein Barr, a virus that can trigger MS disease onset. These new medications are taking multiple sclerosis treatment in a whole new direction. “With them,” says Dr. Picone, “patients can actually forget they are living with MS and that's what we really strive for.”
She adds that there is also some exciting research with regard to food and MS: “Several studies suggest that eating the Mediterranean diet, a diet high in plant-based foods, healthy fats, and fish, can improve the health of patients with various diseases, including MS.”
Early detection is key. Selma said she believes her MS went undiagnosed for as many as 15 years. “Time is of the essence,” says Dr. Picone. “The longer you wait to see a doctor, the greater the loss of myelin and the greater the disruption of underlying nerve fibers. This can result in permanent brain tissue loss and physical disability.”
If you or someone you love would like to find out more about MS symptoms and early detection, please call the MS Center at Holy Name at 201-837-0727 or visit holyname.org/MSCenter/.