Competitive mountain biker hasn't let multiple sclerosis slow her down
Thursday, April 12,
By ROSA SALTER
Of The Morning Call
By Carma Wadley
Deseret News senior writer
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.
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. 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. It turns out that only about 15 percent of MS cases are manifest through seizures.
"So, I had all these years of uncertainty, trying to deal with strange, inconvenient symptoms," says Peck, who was also attending law school at the time.
Knowing the cause of her symptoms, however, was little comfort. "The only experience I had had with MS was an aunt who had a very progressive kind. She went into a convalescent home in her mid-30s. I had memories of her being in a wheelchair, her activities dwindling. 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 says.
Peck came to Utah for the skiing — and for law school, of course. 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. "It wasn't until after I was diagnosed with MS that I really got serious about it." Since 1997, she has been training with Salt Laker J.R. Smith, a USA Cycling certified Elite coach. She turned pro last year.
There are mixed feelings, she says, about whether the intensive training is really good for an MS patient. The heat is a concern; it can have a strong, 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."
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.
"It's a great sport," says Peck. "I like the freedom it gives. But at the same time, you have to pay attention. If you get distracted, you go over the bars."
Still, there's an exhilaration that comes from testing yourself on the trail, from meeting the challenges of getting up a certain hill or getting over a log.
And 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."
That's one thing people with MS need to realize, she says, "it's not bad to ask for help. Especially if you have people you trust."
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. We have new ways of looking at disease progression and several new therapeutic options.
Although there is no cure, ongoing research is uncovering more information, providing new treatments that are very hopeful, says John Foley, chief of neurology at LDS Hospital. "In the last few years, treatment has exploded. It's very exciting."
About 60 percent of his practice now involves MS, he says, and Peck is one of his patients.
As recent as 10 years ago, says Foley, "there was no therapy that made a difference in the overall progress of the disability." But that has changed, largely due 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."
More works needs to be done, he says, "but great things are happening; we're getting results almost beyond expectation."
Peck is a case in point, he says. She has responded very well to Avonex, he says. "She's very impressive, has a strong will. She's very driven. When she puts her mind to a task, she doesn't quit."
And that helps, he says. "Anytime you are dealing with a chronic disease, the mindset is an important element."
"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, "and I'm about as needle-phobic as you get. But it's a small price to pay." While she does experience some side effects, such as flulike symptoms, the benefits outweigh the minimal discomfort.
Many people don't realize, she says, that MS continues to progress, whether or not a person is experiencing the obvious symptoms. It progresses at different rates, and in some people more than others. So early treatment is important. "I've seen a definite improvement in my lifestyle. I hate to think where I would be without this treatment."
Peck does public speaking around the country, to MS patients and care-givers, to help raise awareness of these new treatments in MS. "It's good to let people know that MS doesn't have to be the end of everything."
And 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."
Another thing she has learned, she says, is that MS is only part of who she is. "It doesn't define me."
Yes, she says, there was denial and anger at first. "But I didn't not want to spend my life in bitterness and resentment. In some ways, I consider myself fortunate. Being diagnosed with MS caused me to rethink what I want to do with my life. Without it, I wouldn't have been forced to re-examine myself. I wouldn't have had a chance to do what I'm doing."
She didn't ask for MS; it's not something she chose. "But it's nothing to be embarrassed or ashamed about either. A lot of people don't understand it, so anything I can do to help them understand or help other people deal with it, I'm happy to do that."
After all, she knows what life looks like from the top of the mountain. And no matter what happens, she can always look back on that ride.