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Cindy McCain Breaks Her Silence on Migraine 'Disability'

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Photo by Jeff Kida

Not quite a year ago, Cindy McCain was traveling overseas when a bottle of perfume broke in her bag. She barely had time to unzip the bag when the aroma knocked her “down hard.”

“I’ve never gone down that hard overseas,” said McCain, 55, referring to the migraine headache she had. “I didn’t know anyone. I had to turn around and come back.”

McCain, wife of Sen. John McCain, is speaking out publicly for the first time about her migraines – a medical condition she refers to as a “disability.” For many years, while she lived in Phoenix with her kids and her husband was commuting to and from Washington, D.C., she kept her migraines a secret, fearing she’d ruin the time they had together.

But McCain doesn’t want to stay quiet any longer. Speaking Thursday at the 14th Congress of the International Headache Society in Philadelphia, McCain vowed there will be a cure for migraines in her lifetime.

McCain is one of more than 30 million Americans who suffer from migraines. Women are three times more likely to have them than men, and there is a genetic component to them. McCain said she can remember her grandmother suffered from “headaches,” but she had died before McCain was officially diagnosed with them.

“When I was officially diagnosed, I was 40,” McCain said. “But for several years before that, doctors would tell me, ‘Oh, you’re neurotic, or you’re just stressed, take an aspirin.’”

During a migraine attack, which can happen two or three times a week and last for up to 10 days, McCain said she can experience auras, ringing in her ears, nausea and blindness in her left eye – all depending on what triggered the headache and where she is.

“You learn to deal with them, my family has had to learn to deal with them,” said McCain, who has four children with the senator (Meghan, 24; Jack, 23; Jimmy, 21; and Bridget, 18).

“They know that sometimes I can’t do everything, sometimes I can’t be there because I have a headache. Now that (the kids are older), they are protective and want to take care of me,” McCain added.

McCain said she often ends up in the emergency room during a migraine attack, and during her husband’s presidential campaign in 2008, the lack of sleep or proper nutrition contributed to her headaches.

“A drop in the barometric pressure is deadly for me, as are lights – the lights in the campaign, they were killer for me . . . sometimes we would be at a rally or speech and it would be very hard for me,” she said.

McCain, who suffered a stroke in 2004, isn’t allowed to take preventative medicines anymore, so she relies on triptans, a class of drugs that aborts migraines when taken at the headaches’ onset.

When she is finished speaking in Philadelphia, McCain plans to head to Capitol Hill to testify before Congress about the importance of funding migraine research.

She said migraine sufferers spend $20 billion dollars a year in lost work time and medical expenses, compared to the $13 million dollars that Congress spent to research the “disease.”

And that’s not acceptable, she said.

“I’m missing a large part of my life,” she said. “I want to stay active. I want a cure.”