10/09/00- Updated 01:23 PM
Oct. 9, 2000
By John Morgan
With medical adviser Stephen A. Shoop, M.D.
A Doctor In Your House.com
In the '70s, Alan Osmond was the leader of the hit singing group The Osmond Brothers. Now 51 and the father of eight sons, he no longer sings. But last week he showed he can still move an audience.
"I may have MS, but MS does not have me!" Osmond proclaimed to a crowd of Hollywood's movers and shakers, including Adam Sandler, Wayne Newton, Byron Allen, David "Squiggy" Lander, and Heart's Ann & Nancy Wilson.
Gathering at the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles to honor Osmond and Columbia Pictures Chairman Amy Pascal, the Southern California Chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society presented Osmond with the first-ever Dorothy Corwin Spirit of Life Award. The accolade recognized his inspirational example of living life to the fullest with grace and courage despite having MS.
"This is such honor to be given this award because I truly believe a positive attitude will help heal you," said Osmond. "Don't give up the faith. I promise you will get better."
Facing the challenge
Osmond and over 350,000 Americans suffering from MS have good reason to believe. New treatments for MS are emerging at a remarkable pace after virtually no advances prior to 1993. But a cure remains elusive.
Most people are diagnosed with the chronic and debilitating disease between the ages of 20 and 40. MS is not usually life-threatening. But because the illness is progressively disabling and the need for treatment can span decades, quality of life is a primary issue.
The condition, which is incompletely understood, involves the destruction of the myelin sheaths that insulate vital nerves. This appears to occur as a result of attack by the body's own immune system. Damage to exposed nerves leads to painful and frightening episodes which may result in loss of muscular function. The cause of the affliction is unknown.
According to the experts, MS is generally not hereditary. Having a sibling with the disease increases the risk of incidence to 5%. If a parent has MS, the risk is 1-2%. Women are at 2-2½ times greater risk than men.
Osmond was diagnosed 14 years ago with progressive MS. This form of the illness differs from the more common relapsing-remitting MS in that progressive MS does not typically get better for substantial periods of time, but rather worsens steadily.
Osmond first noticed that his fingers couldn't play his trumpet as fast as they normally could. "Then I kept tripping. I had foot drop," he recalls. "At first I was nervous because I thought I had a tumor or something. After several years, I finally found out I had MS, and we were actually relieved it wasn't a tumor."
Once he knew what he had, Osmond felt he could deal with the challenge more effectively. Many patients who struggle for years to understand their symptoms express the same relief at finally getting a diagnosis.
Fortunately, today MRIs can reveal lesions in the brain caused by MS. "The MRI is helping not only to identify MS patients but also with research, because now we can use the MRI to more effectively evaluate a treatment's efficacy," reports Dr. Norman J. Kachuck, director of the MS Comprehensive Care Center at University of Southern California's University Hospital.
But like so many people with serious illnesses, Osmond kept his MS a secret because he was embarrassed and worried his fans would be uncomfortable seeing him perform. When he learned that a tabloid was going to reveal his secret, he consulted Annette Funicello, who also suffers from MS. She encouraged him to tell his own story.
"I called up my friend Mary Hart at Entertainment Tonight, and they had Bob Goen come up to the cabin for the interview," says Osmond. "It was a relief. I felt much better."
And those good feelings have multiplied since he enlisted in a clinical trial to determine the effectiveness of a relatively new MS medication called Copaxone. Kachuck is overseeing trials of Copaxone at USC and is hopeful the drug will prove effective for patients like Osmond with progressive MS. Copaxone is already approved for patients with relapsing-remitting MS.
"The key for me trying Copaxone or any medications has always been avoiding any treatments with bad side effects. I had tried prednisolone, and it was terrible," explains Osmond, who has also tried numerous alternative therapies including magnets, acupuncture, and aromatherapy. "I decided to try Copaxone because it has hardly any side effects."
Osmond has been enrolled in the Copaxone study and taking medication for over seven months. But because the trial is a double blind study, he can't be certain if he is actually getting Copaxone or a placebo.
"I feel more together and stronger inside. It's very hard to describe but I definitely feel much better," says Osmond. "I'm pretty sure I'm getting the drug, but maybe I'm not."
In addition to his clinical medication regimen, Osmond gets regular B-12 shots. He has decreased his meat intake, increased his consumption of fish, and given up milk. He also recommends eating more raw vegetables, taking vitamin supplements, and eating flax seeds.
For exercise, water therapy suits his buoyant personality, and he plans to buy a trampoline soon to keep the bounce in his step.
Osmond says moving from the city to his log cabin in the mountains also has improved his health. "I can feel the difference. There's so much less stress in my life living here."
But Osmond cautions people to remember that MS can be different for every person. What works for one may not work for another.
Two things he's certain that work for him are humor and daily prayer.
"Laughter and prayer for me are so important," says Osmond, who points to numerous scientific studies proving that prayer and meditation help heal patients better and faster. "Every day I find my purpose. Doctors only help us heal ourselves. We have an active role, and a positive attitude is so important to overcoming this challenge."
That positive attitude also translates to optimism regarding promising developments in MS research. One new therapy on the horizon is a T-cell vaccine being developed at USC.
"This is a very exciting therapy," explains Kachuck. "We're using the patient's own immune cell response against the myelin to make a customized vaccine to give back to the patient. It's like an anti-T cell T-cell or an anti-missile missile."
The therapy is also causing excitement at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The treatment is the first MS vaccine program ever to be given Investigational New Drug status by FDA.
Groundbreaking work is also exploring the possibility of re-growing nerve cells and myelin-producing cells to repair the damage done by MS. "It will be like re-seeding the garden. We'll literally be re-growing brain tissue," says Kachuck.
In the meantime, Osmond stresses the importance of nurturing a healthy spirit by helping others. To aid families who are struggling with crises like MS, he and wife Suzanne started the One Heart Foundation.
"I believe we're not human beings having a spiritual experience. We're spiritual beings having a human experience," he says.
The nature of that experience may try even the strongest soul, but faith and hope have more power than any illness. Just ask Alan Osmond.
For more information about MS visit the National Multiple Sclerosis Society at www.nmss.org or call 1-800-FIGHT MS (1-800-344-4867).
The NMSS Southern California Chapter can be contacted at www.cal.nmss.org.
For more information about Alan Osmond and the One Heart Foundation,
visit www.osmond.com or go to www.oneheart.org.