CALEDONIA — Rebecca Benish, along with her teammates, last week proved that a multiple sclerosis diagnosis doesn’t have to mean a sedentary life or confinement to a wheelchair.
Benish, 39, of Caledonia, was joined by more than 90 teammates in the Detroit Free Press Marathon on Oct. 21 in Detroit.
“It was so exciting,” Benish said of the marathon.
The members of the Run A Myelin My Shoes team, half of whom have MS, ran various distances: Some did the whole marathon, some did half and others, like Benish, took part in a relay. Benish ran 12.9 miles that day, making up two legs of the relay. Others from every continent across the globe joined in running or walking. The team worked to raise money and awareness for the National MS Society.
The use of the word “Myelin” in the team refers to myelin sheaths that surrounds humans’ nerves. When a person has MS, an autoimmune disease, her immune system eats away at those sheaths. The immune system also starts to eat away at the person’s brain, causing lesions. Some symptoms include fatigue, lack of coordination and vision problems.
Benish wasn’t sure what to expect in Detroit, as she had heard that it had become akin to a ghost town since the 2008 recession.
“Everyone from my Uber driver, to the support on the course, they were so happy and so supportive,” Benish said.
She described running over the Ambassador Bridge, which connects Detroit with Windsor, in Ontario, Canada, as beautiful.
But around her eighth mile, Benish, who said she was undertrained due to a back injury, hit a wall — metaphorically speaking.
“The pain was so bad,” she said. “My legs started to ache and throb in an indescribable manner. I had tears in my eyes.”
Right at that moment, one of her teammates found her on the course and they finished their legs of the relay together.
“You always feel accomplished,” Benish said of finishing her part of the relay. “But MS has its own challenges. There’s a lot of physical pain, obviously.”
About eight years ago, Benish started having trouble driving at night, and then her leg went numb from her toes to her hip for about a week. She thought it was a pinched nerve.
Two or three months later her leg went numb again, but the numbness started moving up her rib cage. A CT scan revealed lesions on her brain.
After that she was quickly diagnosed with MS.
Those with MS are typically put on steroids to bring down swelling in the brain and get their immune system to calm down.
She was taking one drug that worked well for her for a couple of years, but she had to take an injection every day.
“You don’t get a break from the injections,” she said. “I started getting sloppy with taking them.”
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She stopped taking the injections and ended up going blind in her left eye, and also experienced cognitive decline. She lost her ability to work for a time and had to take high-dose steroids to reverse the damage.
Benish made some significant lifestyle changes after her diagnosis, including nixing her two-hour roundtrip commute.
She began doing Cross-fit exercising and started long-distance running.
“I like to run,” Benish said. “It’s what I like to do and I was getting faster and it was just fun.”
About six years ago, Benish started doing a “couch to 5K” program, slowly building up her endurance.
“It was hard,” she said. “With MS, you’re always tired. Something always hurts.”
Benish started working with a sports chiropractor, who gave her exercises to work on her weaknesses and imbalances and soon she was running three miles consistently without a break.
“I noticed my energy was increasing, my thought process was improving,” she said.
She also started eating a paleo-style diet, which focuses on fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and meats.
“When you get diagnosed with something like this, it just becomes really apparent that you have to listen to your body and do what your body is telling you to do,” she said.
Just a few weeks before her MS diagnosis, Benish’s father-in-law was diagnosed with lung and brain cancer. So after her diagnosis, Benish decided that she wasn’t going to feel bad for herself or pout about her disease, as she wasn’t going to die from it, like her father-in-law did from cancer.
Those with MS usually die from complications like pneumonia, chicken pox or a bad case of the flu.
Benish wants employers and people with MS to know that having the disease doesn’t mean you don’t have anything to contribute or that you have to stop living your life.
“We’re still capable, we’re still able to work, it doesn’t mean that I’m going to be in a wheelchair tomorrow,” she said.
She encourages those who have been newly diagnosed to stay off the message boards and to keep moving, even if it’s just walking around the living room or the back yard.
“One thing I’ve found with this disease is if you don’t keep moving, you will stop moving,” she said.
Benish hopes to run a full marathon in 2019, but that depends on how well she continues to recover from last week’s relay.
And in 2020, she’s hopeful that she and her sister will participate in MS Run the US, a 3,100-mile relay across the country.
“One thing I’ve found with this disease is if you don’t keep moving, you will stop moving.” Rebecca Benish, a Caledonia runner with MS
“One thing I’ve found with this disease is if you don’t keep moving, you will stop moving."
Rebecca Benish, a Caledonia runner with MS