More MS news articles for April 2001

Competitive mountain biker hasn't let MS slow her down

Thursday, April 19, 2001
The Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY -- Lisa Peck does not want to look back on her life and kick herself for not taking the opportunities she had.

That's why she spends two to three hours every day training on her mountain bike.

"I've seen every new video release known to Hollywood," she says of the monotony of riding her stationary bike hour after hour during the long winter months.

Peck's hard work has paid off. She placed fifth at the 2000 Masters World Mountain Bike Championships. "It has taken blood, sweat and tears to get there," she admits, the determination evident in her voice.

But if she is riding high in the world of mountain biking right now, Peck, probably more than most, knows her ride can come to a screeching halt anytime.

In 1996, at age 29, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

It's an insidious disease, an often-silent marauder that creeps in and disrupts life in random ways. In fact, it took about fours years before her case was finally diagnosed.

"It started with a little numbness, confusion, vertigo, just odd feelings," she said. "We knew something was wrong, but not what." A brain tumor, Lyme disease? They explored a number of possibilities.

She began having petite mal seizures. Then came the more traditional symptoms of tingling and numbness, and the diagnosis was made. Only about 15 percent of MS cases manifest themselves through seizures.

"So, I had all these years of uncertainty, trying to deal with strange, inconvenient symptoms," said Peck, who was also attending law school at the time.

Knowing the cause of her symptoms was little comfort for Peck, whose only experience with MS was an aunt who went into a convalescent home in her 30s.

"I had memories of her being in a wheelchair, her activities dwindling," she said. " That was the spectre I had in my mind when they told me I had MS."

Luckily for Peck -- and everyone else with the disease -- great strides in care and treatment have been made in recent years. "There is no cure, but there is more hope," she said.

Peck came to Utah for the skiing -- and for law school. She had not done much cycling back home in Connecticut. Here, she not only found that riding her bike was a convenient way to get back and forth from school, but also that the friends she was attracted to were very much into it, and cycling became a social as well as a physical outlet.

She raced off and on, competing with friends here and there, for a few years. But it wasn't until after she was diagnosed with MS that she got serious about the sport.

Since 1997, she has been training with J.R. Smith, a USA Cycling certified Elite coach in Salt Lake City. She turned pro last year.

There are mixed opinions, she says, about whether the intensive training is really good for an MS patient. The heat can have a negative effect. The training and racing can deplete the body's resources.

But for Peck, it wasn't a question of if, but how.

"I told my doctor we had to work out a plan to make it happen, that I wasn't going to quit," she said.

That determination and grit have taken her to the top. But even so, she knows it could be a temporary thing.

"I don't know what physical abilities I'll have a year from now. I can't guarantee that I'll be able to compete next year." So, she says, she has to make the most of her todays. "Life's too short not to go for it. I have to pursue this dream while I can."

The mountain biking season runs from March to August. The world championships are held in September. Racers compete in age groups, covering a set course of anywhere from 15 to 24 miles, depending on the race.

After a hard day at the office -- Peck now has a private practice in partnership with her oldest sister -- it's a way to get out and put all your worries aside. "It's like a mini-vacation every time I ride."

Her family and friends have been very supportive, she says. "I have a great support system here. My cycling friends have been great. I can tell them I'm having a bad day, and they keep an eye out for me."

A new case of multiple sclerosis is diagnosed about every hour in this country; nearly a third of a million Americans live with the disease, which impacts the central nervous system.

Although there is no cure, ongoing research is uncovering more information, providing new treatments that are very hopeful.

As recent as 10 years ago, he said, there was no therapy that made a difference in the overall progress of the disability. But that has changed, due largely to a new group of drugs that are known as interferon beta-1a drugs, which target the relapsing/remitting forms of the disease.

Avonex, one of these drugs, is also particularly effective with cognitive impairment, which up until now has been a largely overlooked part of MS, and yet it is something that can often be more devastating than the physical impairment.

Cognitive functions most affected by MS include information processing (slowing of mental processes, difficulty performing multiple tasks) and verbal and visual memory (forgetfulness, delayed recall).

"Now we are finding that we can give a drug that alters and slows that cognitive dysfunction, especially early in the treatment. It has really made a difference in quality of life issues, people working longer, having a better life at home," he said.

"For myself," says Peck, "getting into this treatment was and is the best chance I have of beating MS. It's something I can do to help myself."

The treatment involves giving herself injections once a week, she says. While she does experience some side effects, such as flulike symptoms, the benefits outweigh the minimal discomfort.

Peck does public speaking around the country, to MS patients and care-givers, to help raise awareness of these new treatments in MS. She talks about the importance of exercise -- at whatever level patients can manage: yoga, water aerobics, easy walking, and yes, biking.

"Anything you can do to get outdoors, even if you're in a wheelchair, improves your mind, body and spirit."

Not every MS patient will turn into a champion mountain biker. How long Peck will be able to continue training is an unknown. But she has learned a lot, she says, about dealing with a chronic disease.

One thing, is that a positive attitude helps.

"My boyfriend recently asked me what I'd do if I couldn't bike. I told him that I would pick something else to do. I would learn how to garden. I would volunteer. I would pick something that I could have control over and do it. I need to take control of what I can while I can."