Siblings With MS

Keep it in the Family...

I’ve been avoiding writing this blog for quite some time now, mostly out of fear that you, dear reader, were expecting answers. I was (am) concerned that you might be reading this looking for new scientific research on why it is that ‘first-degree relatives’ (parents, children and siblings) are more likely to develop MS if an immediate relative has the disease. I can only rehash existing information – Sorry, but I never claimed to be a scientist – and share my experience.

When I was newly diagnosed with MS, and clueless about the disease, I attended the MS Society’s annual conference. I met a number of people, with an adult child who also had MS. I was horrified that I, unknown to myself, may be ‘passing on’ this illness to my children. It never occurred to me then, that a sibling too, was also more likely to be diagnosed. Statistically, if you have a sibling with MS, your risk of developing the disease is around 1 in 20. Derek, my brother, is thirteen month older than me. We were coincidentally, both diagnosed with MS within a year of each other. Ironically, Derek was speaking to his wife Sue about having ‘funny feelings in his arms and legs’, when my mother phoned him five minutes later, saying that I had been admitted to hospital, with suspected MS. Even now, it all seems slightly bizarre. Until that point, there were no instances of MS in our immediate, or indeed extended family that we knew of.  Although it is not a genetically inherited disease, it seems very likely that there is a genetic susceptibility in developing the disease. This was discussed at a recent MS Society coffee morning that I attended. Without exception, everyone there had a first-degree relative with MS. 

Could how, or where we spent our childhood, or infections we encountered have made us more prone to MS? Our Northern European ancestry perhaps? Or could it have been related to our early exposure to sunshine and Vitamin D? Although, looking back at my own childhood, with seemingly endless 1980’s summers, with ne’er a screed of sunscreen in sight, I would have thought we would have absorbed a life time supply of Vitamin D.  

Research says, rather vaguely, that developing MS is probably a mixture of all of these factors.  

Derek and I were like chalk and cheese as children and our MS symptoms now are equally diverse, although we both ‘share’ bad fatigue.  Derek’s describes his fatigue as ‘constantly lurking in the background’, whereas I get bouts that hit me like a ton of bricks.  I can’t say that its ‘nice’ to have someone so close to talk to about MS, because I’d much prefer that he didn’t have this thing hanging over him too.  I’d be quite happy to take One For The Team and set Derek free.  If I feel that he is having a rougher time with his symptoms than I am, I feel pretty useless and at times, guilty. Thankfully, we aren’t competitive siblings, so we don’t have ‘my MS is worse than yours’ conversations. The fact that he lives in Bristol and I’m in Kildare means that offering day-to-day support isn’t an option. Still, we compare treatments, exercise and dietary tips and health service experiences and support services in England and Ireland.

Regarding my own children, I found myself torn this summer when we had a rare bout of decent sunshine, to expose them to Vitamin D versus protecting their skin from the sun. The fear factor won out and the sun screen came out. I am very conscious of their diet though and make sure that they have Vitamin D in their daily multi vitamin. I don’t let them eat (as many) sugar sandwiches as Derek and I did as children either and I probably wouldn’t let them watch Dallas either.  

I’ve just had a thought. Maybe there’s a link to our MS diagnosis, watching Dallas (seeing a little much of a scantily clad Sue Ellen) and sugar sandwiches? 

All joking aside, given the instances of first-degree relatives with MS in Ireland and other countries, I feel that we are an obvious target group to assist research. In my opinion, this should be a priority research area that has yet to be fully explored.