May 18, 2002, 12:08 PM EDT
By CHRISTINE V. BAIRD
WEST CALDWELL, N.J.(AP) _ Lise Shankman is out of the closet.
And it's not the closet that once housed, oh perhaps, Jimmy Choo pumps, Manolo Blahnik stilettos or other fanciful footwear that indulged her self-proclaimed shoe fetish. It's a more private one, where she hid from the world the fact that she has multiple sclerosis.
Diagnosed 10 years ago after the birth of her second son, Shankman, 42, took her time coming out to family and friends about the illness whose ravages are, for the most part, invisible to the eye save for her slight limp. Recently, however, word got out at her West Caldwell gym.
Jim Carpentier, a personal coach at Tiger Tennis & Fitness Center, was wowed by the unassuming woman working out diligently while fighting a disease that leaves many crippled.
"She is unique," said Carpentier, who felt Shankman's story would inspire others who are physically challenged. "This does not stop her. She has a tremendous attitude."
Such praise makes Shankman blanch. She's a little shy about being a "success story," but not about being a fitness success.
"I've never been like, 'Yo, here I am, come look at me,"' she said.
Well, maybe she was once, she'd admit, when sporting those fabulous four-inch heels she's since traded in for sneakers because MS has taken away her balance.
But having her gym buddies discover that she's battling a disease has been surprisingly positive _ an outpouring of encouragement.
She's even met a woman at the gym, recently diagnosed with MS, who was shocked to learn that Shankman's had it for almost 11 years. It made the woman feel better, Shankman said. "You just want to know you're not the only one struggling."
MS is a disease of the central nervous system that damages nerve cells, causing impulses to go awry and leaving sufferers with vision problems, muscle tremors and, sometimes, paralysis.
Every day, until recent non-MS-related surgery slowed her down, Shankman hit the gym with a mixed routine of rowing, weightlifting and stretching exercises. Two days a week, she works with a personal trainer.
"I push as hard as I can," she said, often sandwiching workouts between shuttling her sons to school or karate lessons and doing the daily food shopping. "I never knew boys ate so much," she said.
Shankman, who lives in North Caldwell, never wanted to call attention to herself. She thought her disease was her family's personal problem _ her mom has MS, too.
So she was shocked to see a Larry King show last month devoted to MS, with celebrity sufferers like Montel Williams and Alan Osmond, the eldest of the singing Osmond Brothers, telling their stories.
"I was kind of blown away," she said. "You mean there is someone out there that has this?"
Shankman had showed no signs of the disease until a month after giving birth, when her left foot began going numb. She never suspected MS until her husband's college roommate, an orthopedist, diagnosed it. Her response: "I do not."
Tests confirmed the disease. Shankman believes that, in a way, she was lucky. Because the disease has vague symptoms, most MS suffers spend lots of time visiting all types of doctors trying to figure out what is wrong with them. Some experience blurred vision or dizziness due to damage to the optic nerve while others feel weak, fatigued or numb due to damaged nerves which govern their muscles.
Some people suffer just one intense attack never to be bothered again, others suffer occasional attacks followed by remission-like periods, while still others go downhill rapidly. Some go blind or are forced to use a wheelchair.
While MS isn't fatal, it's always lurking. Shankman's disease is steadily progressing _ her left leg has recently gotten weaker, causing her to fight harder.
MS is a notorious energy zapper, so Shankman credits her ability to keep going to exercise.
"I had never worked out before. I thought, 'Who needs to do that?"' she said of a gym routine, but the disease changed that. "I didn't want to lose what I had. If you don't use it, you'll lose it."
Once an avid skier and biker, who even cycled through Nova Scotia, Shankman vowed to continue exercising when she learned of her illness. But the medical advice given at that time was to rest.
"They discouraged me," Shankman said. "When I told my doctor at the time (about cycling), he was not happy with me."
The doctor's orders went out the window, and recent evidence suggests that Shankman made a good call. During the past decade, researchers at the University of Utah and elsewhere have demonstrated that exercise preserves neural function and improves the affected person's mental attitude. It also shortens the duration of MS flare-ups and speeds recovery from them.
Shankman believes it. Despite losing leg strength, she has gone from struggling with a three-pound dumbbell to bench pressing 40 pounds and pulling down 70 pounds on the lat machine. She can press more than her trainer. "It made me feel good to know, 'OK, maybe I have trouble, but at least I am not a wimp,"' she said.
The psychological lift is key. A recent study conducted at Cedar Crest College and Lehigh Valley Hospital in Allentown, Pa., focused on the psychological effects of exercise on MS patients. It compared an exercise group with a sedentary group of suffers and found that the exercisers experienced much less anxiety and depression.
Depression is a frequent companion of those with MS. For Shankman, an athlete who once worked as a buyer in Manhattan's bustling retail world, ceding control to the disease was unthinkable.
"That was the biggest challenge _ accepting that you need help," she said. Her mother had less trouble because she was never physically active. "She's a bookworm," Shankman said.
Drugs to treat MS _ there are five approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration _ often list depression as a side effect.
"I do get depressed. I told my doctor: 'I have nothing to be depressed about except this disease,"' Shankman said, noting how supportive her family and friends are. "You have to work through it."
Each week she gets one shot of the drug Avonex, but she isn't sure the medicine works. "To be honest, I don't think it is helping me," she said.
But there is hope. Researchers on the human genome project have discovered
that four, and possibly up to 10, completely different diseases are being
lumped together under an MS rubric. Doctors may now be able to use this
information to identify which MS variation a patient has and prescribe
the best drug. Right now, Shankman is "doctor-hopping," trying to find
a specialist up on the latest research developments.
Copyright © 2002, The Associated Press