Mitt Romney’s wife, Ann, has been described as his presidential campaign’s secret weapon because of her charismatic ability to connect with Republican voters on the campaign trail.
One reason for her appeal: her inspiring, not-so-secret battle with multiple sclerosis.
Since she was diagnosed with the neurological condition in 1998, Ann Romney has waged a very public struggle with the disease. She has made no secret of its ups and downs, or her decision to use both conventional and alternative treatments to manage it.
The Romneys have openly discussed the issue on the campaign trail, confronting head on the unasked questions some may have about its potential to limit her ability to perform her duties as a prospective first lady.
In fact, health experts say there is no way to predict the course of MS. It’s a disease that is, by nature, unpredictable. Its sometimes-debilitating symptoms — including fatigue, numbness, blindness, and paralysis — can suddenly resurface without warning. It also strikes people in different ways. Some experience devastating symptoms, while others may hardly notice its effects.
“You can’t really talk about what challenges and limitations Ann Romney would face as first lady as a result of her MS because there are no typical experiences with MS,” Arney Rosenblat, spokeswoman for National Multiple Sclerosis Society, told Newsmax Health. “In fact, that’s a hallmark of MS — its unpredictability.”
But Rosenblat and doctors who treat MS patients note that a number of new drugs have been developed that have turned it into a manageable condition. As a result, many people with MS live without the disease having a major impact on their day-to-day lives.
That’s why Ann’s MS — while still potentially a debilitating condition — will likely not have a great impact on the first family if the Romneys move into the White House.
“I can’t comment directly on Ann Romney’s MS because I’m not her physician,” said Dr. Aaron Miller, an MS specialist. “But, in general, many patients like Ann Romney — indeed many of my patients with MS — look and feel entirely well and don’t have any limitations at all. And that’s becoming increasingly common for MS patients.
“So, speaking in generalities, it would be quite possible for a first lady with MS to have no limitations at all.”
In addition to the eight drugs now available to treat MS, Miller said at least three other new therapies are in the pipeline and slated for review this year by the Food and Drug Administration.
“It’s a really exciting time in MS,” Rosenblat said. “MS has moved from being a non-treatable disease in 1993 to a (manageable) disease today.”
MS is a chronic disease that attacks the central nervous system. About 400,000 Americans are living with MS today, and another 200 more are diagnosed every week, according to the National MS Society. In addition to Ann Romney, it affects such celebrities as Annette Funicello, Teri Garr, and Montel Williams. It strikes more women than men, and is often diagnosed in people between ages 20 and 40.
Although there is no cure for MS, the FDA-approved drugs used to treat it — including Avonex, Betasero, Copaxone, Extavia and Rebif — are effective at controlling flare-ups and symptoms.
Ann Romney’s MS was diagnosed after she had trouble walking, but since then her disease has gone into remission and she says she is symptom-free. The 62-year-old mother of five sons and grandmother of 16 has been a whirlwind of energy on the campaign trail, typically attending multiple events a day.
In addition to having MS, she also had a cancerous lump removed from her breast in 2008 and underwent radiation treatment, but she has not had any reported after-effects.
The first year of the diagnosis, in 1998, was the worst, Mitt Romney said in a recent interview. “Probably the toughest time of my life was standing there with Ann, as we hugged each other and the diagnosis came,” said the former Massachusetts governor.
She immediately began drug treatment at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, before the Romneys moved to Utah in 1999, where she was also treated at the University of Utah Medical Center.
But in addition to conventional therapy, she reportedly turned to alternative medicine — reflexology, acupuncture, and yoga.
In 2002, she went into complete remission, the Romneys said.
Miller said major stress can induce a relapse or flare-up in MS sufferers. “There are some studies in the literature that have suggested stress can bring on a relapse,” he said. “But we’re not talking about the kind of stress (associated with) a White House dinner or a tough day on the campaign trail. We’re talking about major life stresses, like the death of a family member.”
Based on public reports, experts say Ann Romney’s approach to managing her disease is right in line with what specialists recommend for people who have MS.
“We strongly recommend that people get on one of the FDA-approved medications and encourage people to engage in health and wellness activities that can enhance their body’s condition,” said Steve Sookikian, a spokesman for the Greater New England Chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. “So Ann’s pursuit of what we call complementary therapies is completely consistent with that.”
The Romneys’ decision to openly address Ann’s MS has increased public awareness of the condition, he added. As a past member of New England MS chapter’s board of trustees, she also helped raise funding and awareness.
While it’s impossible to predict the course of Ann’s disease, Sookikian said MS awareness is sure to grow as the campaign progresses and the media start paying closer attention to the potential first ladies.
“When Ann was the first lady of Massachusetts, it did bring public attention to MS,” he said. “So clearly anytime someone is in a high-profile position with the public they have the opportunity to create awareness about the condition they are dealing with.”
Dr. Miller agreed.
“Whenever there’s a public figure with a disease, that raises public awareness,” he told Newsmax Health. “The fact that Ann Romney has MS can only increase public awareness of the disease. And our hope, of course, is that she will continue to do well managing her MS. And doing so can only give hope to others with the disease.”