Janice Dean is best known for talking about the weather.
Whether it's tornadoes in the Midwest or hurricanes in the Southeast, she’s got it covered.
But the always bubbly Dean, who can be seen most days on the FOX News Channel, recently sat down to talk about something other than the weather.
Diagnosed two-and-a-half years ago with multiple sclerosis, Dean recently made the decision to go public with her condition.
“I’ve been thinking about it for a real long time,” she said. “But the way it works with MS is that doctors have to see at least two flare-ups before they can really diagnose you. So even though I had every indication that I had it, I wanted to (be) sure before I put myself out there.”
Dean chose to reveal her condtion this week because it is National MS Awareness Week.
Multiple sclerosis is a chronic, often disabling disease that attacks the central nervous system, which is made up of the brain, spinal cord, and optic nerves. Symptoms may include numbness in the limbs. At its worst, MS can result in paralysis or loss of vision, according to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.
It is believed that about 400,000 Americans live with MS. There are about 200 new diagnoses each week, according to the national society.
It’s unknown what causes multiple sclerosis. Because some people who have MS have relatives with the disease or other autoimmune illnesses, some believe it may be genetic.
People with MS also tend to grow up in colder climates. In countries closest to the equator, for example, where warm weather and sunlight are plentiful, there is virtually no trace of the disease.
Dean’s link to the disease could stem from her father, who has the autoimmune disease rheumatoid arthritis, or from the fact that grew up in Canada, which sees more than its fair share of cold weather.
Still, some believe the disease may be environmental or come from a simple virus, such as the measles, that has mutated.
The cause may be unknown, but MS is no longer the untreatable neurological illness it once was, said Dr. Mark Tullman, director of the Multiple Sclerosis Clinical Care Center at Columbia University Medical Center in New York.
“There have been major advances over the past 15 years that have really altered the course of treatment,” said Tullman, who treats Dean. “We have not cured the disease, but we’ve lessened the likelihood that people with MS will suffer what we call regular flare-ups of the disease and increased the likelihood that people with the disease will remain healthy.”
Dean suffered her first “flare up” of multiple sclerosis just before embarking on a vacation with her husband to Canada.
“I think with every MS sufferer you have that light bulb moment that something’s not right,” Dean said. “I remember it was during the 2005 hurricane season because it was such an active year, and I just felt really rundown, which isn’t like me. I’m a workaholic. I’m used to working long hours. And I remember thinking that I needed to make sure I took some time off because I was just so exhausted.”
It was in Canada where Dean awoke one morning and felt numbness on the bottoms of both feet and in her thighs.
“It was really weird, I could literally touch my thighs and feel nothing,” Dean said. “And I was still really tired.”
After visiting a Canadian physician and learning she could have anything from a slipped disc to MS, Dean was told to go back United States for a full diagnosis.
“I remember hearing the words (multiple sclerosis) and thinking, this lady is crazy,” Dean said of the Canadian doctor.
Dean went to a neurologist in the U.S. and MRI scans showed she had lesions and scarring on her brain and her spine. She was told she more than likely had MS.
“I really thought my life was over,” she said. “I thought I was going to be in a wheelchair and I really bought into the other myths and misconceptions about the disease. I was nervous and scared.”
Dean said she visited one of her FOX colleagues and fellow MS sufferer Neil Cavuto, host of Your World w/Neil Cavuto and managing editor of the FOX Business Channel, and cried for “what felt like two hours.”
“But Neil told me, you’re going to get through this,” she said. “And you’re going to be stronger.”
With the regular treatments, including a daily injection she must administer herself, Dean was able to avoid a second flare-up of the disease for more than two years. The time lapse has made her cautiously optimistic.
“My doctor said that just because I went two-and-a-half years without a flare-up, it doesn’t necessarily mean I won’t get another one two weeks from now,” she said. “But he’s pretty sure that with the treatment I’m receiving I should be able to stay healthy and strong, and that I probably won't end up in a wheelchair.”
MS research is an active area, said Tullman, adding that further advances in treating the disease aren’t that far off in the future.
“They’re working on new medications that will improve the strength of patients, repair the neurological damage that has been done by the disease, and restore the function that has been lost. It used to be that people who were diagnosed with this disease would develop problems with walking within 10 to 15 years. But now, you’ll see people walking down the street who were diagnosed 15 years ago and you won’t even know anything is wrong with them.”
“The unfortunate reality is that not everyone responds to the medications we have,” Tullman continued. “But perceptions are beginning to change and people are realizing that having multiple sclerosis doesn’t mean your life is over.”
To get through the initial shock, Dean began reading books by Richard Cohen, husband of Today Show host Meredith Vieira; Terri Garr and Montel Williams, all of whom have detailed their own struggles with multiple sclerosis. She believes that with a positive attitude she and others can beat this disease.
“I really don’t want to be the poster girl for this disease,” she said. “But I do want others with it to know that they are not alone. There are others out there that are just like them going through the same thing. And my life is fairly normal. I just have a few little obstacles that I have to deal with.”