In 2008, Aurora Colello was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS). Since then, she’s done over 21 triathlons and is healthier than ever.
Colello, 40, is racing in the Nautica Malibu Triathlon Sunday, and thanks to a major lifestyle shift and an open-minded doctor, her MS isn’t stopping her from achieving her goals.
“This disease literally could put you in a wheelchair quickly,” she told FoxNews.com. “I raced my first half Iron Man almost five years ago to the day of my diagnosis.”
It started in November 2008 when the San Diego mother of four— all under age 7 at the time— had pain in her eye that blinded her. She was diagnosed with an extreme case of optic neuritis, inflammation of the optic nerve that could lead to permanent vision loss. An MRI scan revealed 10 lesions on her brain.
The combination of the two was a sign of MS and Colello was diagnosed with the relapsing-remitting form of the nervous system disorder. According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, relapsing-remitting MS is characterized by clearly defined attacks of worsening neurologic function. Patients experience attacks, often called relapses, followed by partial or complete recovery periods, or remissions. About 85 percent of MS patients are initially diagnosed with this form of the disease, compared to 10 to 15 percent who have progressive forms.
Doctors told her to pick a medication and start planning for life in a wheelchair within five years. Colello started thinking about what she wanted to do before her body fell apart. She’d always wanted to do a triathlon, and signed up for her first race. It took her a month to build up to running a mile, and then she taught herself how to swim and began biking to train.
At the same time, she reached out to everyone she knew for some insight about MS. Most of the patients she connected with were still sick years after their diagnosis, even with medications. But one man had gone to a holistic health center and suggested she consider it as an alternative.
Colello went to Center for Advanced Medicine in Encinitas, Calif. There, the naturopathic doctor suggested antinflammatory foods, supplements and lifestyle changes that could improve her condition.
“I didn’t even know these places existed,” she said. “The top neurologists in San Diego all said the same thing— it was an incurable, progressive disease. I just have to sit back and wait for what happens. Noone had ever talked about lifestyle changes or any of these things.”
Colello was skeptical and worried about the cost of the appointment and supplements. The doctor at the center had given her a neck massage, explaining the optic nerve connects to the neck, therefore this would stimulate her sight to return.
“I thought he was totally crazy,” she said.
Two weeks later, her vision was completely restored— she’d been blind for 30 days.
“All of a sudden, I had a huge sense of maybe there’s something to all this natural stuff that I can do,” Colello said. “I know I didn’t really take care of myself. I was always in a rush and not taking care of myself— it’s a mom thing!”
Colello dove into her healthier lifestyle, dropping gluten from her diet, watching everything she put in her body, checking her vitamin levels regularly.
“I was still training for my race, so six months later, instead of being sicker and weaker like all the doctors said I’d be, I was stronger and healthier; I felt amazing,” she said.
Colello started seeing Dr. Kulreet Chaudhary, a neurologist specializing in Ayurvedic medicine. Ayurveda is the traditional medicine of India that looks at the body holistically to prevent disease. Chaudry educated her on inflammation, which Ayurveda believes to be the root cause of all disease, and shifted her thinking from MS as something you “have” to an imbalance in the body that can be fixed. Chaudry put her on an Ayurvedic herb regime and suggested lifestyle changes, including sleep and stress management.
A year after her initial diagnosis, Colello went in for an MRI. All 10 of her lesions were gone.
“[Chaudry] sounded kind of shocked on the phone…she’d never seen results like this,” she said. “It just amazed me because it showed what I’d been doing that year really caused my body to heal itself.”
While Colello was excited by the news, she eventually found herself slacking off on the healthy habits. Then her symptoms started to return, including trigeminal neuralgia, a shooting pain through her face.
“Imagine the worst earache, toothache, stabbing in your eye, and migraine taking turns every few seconds shooting throughout your face,” she described. “I wanted to die.”
When Colello was feeling better, she thought maybe she’d been misdiagnosed, but the relapse quickly reminded her that she did have MS in her body and that she knew what she had to do to avoid symptoms. Her next MRI showed a small lesion had returned and that wake-up call sent he back to living a healthier life. Six years later, she still follows her routine.
“Whatever I have to do is completely worth it to me, to never have to experience that progression in my body,” she said.
Colello’s healthy turnaround has trickled down to her family and community. She is now the coordinator for MS Fitness Challenge, a non-profit that gives free gym memberships, trainers and support for anybody with MS to encourage them to get active.
Training with MS can be difficult, but Colello has learned that pushing through, even when she isn’t 100 percent symptom-free, is something she can do and achieve.
“No matter how great I feel, I have this disease,” she said. “This whole sport is mindset…it really helped me to develop a strong mindset.”
Colello’s diagnosis was life-changing, but not in the negative way experts expected it to be.
“I look healthier, feel healthier and my mind is healthier than 10 years ago,” she said. “To actually feel energetic, strong and wake up and not feel exhausted at 3 p.m. with kids… is really a gift.”