After literally decades of school, your 20s and 30s mean you finally get to put all that education into action. You're working hard on your career, putting in all the hours, keeping your eye on the goals you've probably had for forever. And then, hello, there's MS in the mix, zapping your energy, stealing your focus and maybe even your on-the-job mojo.
Before you go too far down the rabbit hole of fear, we're here to tell you that you can still have a successful and happy work life regardless of your condition. In fact, we spoke with three women who are living with MS and rocking their careers. Below, they share their biggest challenges, surprises, and advice for managing it all. Spoiler: You can, too!
"MS Won't Define Me!"
—Sidney Sterling, 22, a PR staffer in Miami
How did you tell your boss that you had MS?
"I invited her to lunch. I wanted to tell her in a casual setting so she could ask me questions and really understand my condition. I walked her through my diagnosis story and how I've made an impact in the MS community by speaking with children who've been diagnosed and helping to grow a charity (Shop to Stop MS at the University of Miami MS Center for Excellence). She was receptive, understanding, and impressed."
How do you manage on-the-job stress?
"Since I work in public relations, a fast-paced and ever-changing industry, stress is inevitable. I try my best to be mindful at work and take 'me time' even if that means going a walk around the block, taking small breaks, or taking deep breaths. Something my boss said to me that really stuck with me is: 'It's PR, not ER.' Whenever I find myself worrying or stressing, I channel that saying. Nothing is worth getting a flare-up over. If you don't have your health, you can't do anything!"
What do you do if you have a bad MS day?
"I keep blue-light glasses at my desk if the light is ever bothering me. I like to work in the conference rooms at my office because they have natural lighting and greenery that help me stay energized when I'm feeling fatigued or when my eyes are bothering me. I also keep a cozy blanket at my desk whenever my muscles feel achy or cold."
Any thoughts on how to be successful and not let your MS hold you back?
"Instead of letting my MS hold me back, I've used my MS to become successful in all that I do. Because of my diagnosis, I've always had to work a little harder than everyone else to prove that my MS does not impact my everyday life. I use my MS as a motivator, and I'm determined to not let it define me. Due to my diagnosis, I've connected, networked, and made a difference in my community."
"I Don't Compare my Life With MS to Anyone Else's Life!"
—Channing Barker, 30, a former TV broadcaster in Fayetteville, AR, and now an MS advocate
How do you talk to your boss about taking time away from the office for medical appointments?
"I'm very stubborn about missing work for appointments. However, it has to happen sometimes because neurology, neuropsychology, ophthalmology, and MRI appointments are very fatiguing, and going back to work after that isn't an option. Since my treatments are an all-day event, I work with my employer to use sick days for those days."
Which time periods were challenging for you?
"I have found grief to be a phase that comes in waves. I grieve the life I imagined before this diagnosis: What would it be like to live without a handful of pills, fatigue, weakness, blurry vision, and so much more? I've overcome this by surrounding myself with people who sit with me in hard times and cheer me on in joyful times."
How did you tell your boss/co-workers about your MS?
"When I was a morning show anchor, I was very open about my MS. I've always told bosses about it and explained how it impacts my work. I've found that once employers learn how they can assist, they are more than willing to help."
Was part of your career change—of moving away from TV news and into advocacy—due to your MS?
"Some days when I am in pain or working through brain fog or fatigue, I will work from home. This was not something I could do while in TV news. That job was stressful and anxiety-ridden, and I had a relapse every spring. So, yes, I shifted careers into something more accommodating with this disease."
How do you manage stress now?
"I do yoga, walk my dog, and take weekends to fully recharge. If I don't rest—and that could mean a day in bed—it shows in my work and in my body the next day."
How do you cope with anxiety regarding your performance at work?
"There will always be anxiety about fulfilling my duties due to brain fog/tremors/fatigue, but I work every day to the best of my ability with the energy I have for that specific day. Also, I imagine my life is like living in a glass full of energy: I have to work and live life outside of my job with that one cup. If I exert all my energy at work, I won’t have anything left for making dinner or enjoying life. Plus, I need some energy to start for the following day. That is the type of anxiety I work through each and every day."
"You Have to Make a Choice to Be Strong!"
—Brooke Pelczynski, 28, an illustrator and pottery-store manager in Brooklyn, NY
How has MS affected you on the job?
"When I was first diagnosed and waiting tables, I was afraid of dropping plates and getting fired. My current job at the pottery shop requires a lot of lifting. Some days are worse than others, and I will need to ask other staff to help me. It's also a small studio so taking time off to rest due to fatigue is very difficult. That's why illustrating from home is great. Some days it's difficult to hold a pencil or whatever tool I'm using, but when the symptoms pass, I can just start back up."
What did you tell your boss about your MS?
"About eight months into my job, I showed her a video I had done with Yahoo about my MS and she was shocked. I haven't asked for any special treatment. I tell her when I won’t be coming in due to appointments and she seems to just accept it."
Do you think your co-workers know a lot about MS?
"I'm always a little worried that people think I am incapable of doing certain tasks due to my MS, but I make it clear to my team that when I need help, I will ask for it."
How do you make sure MS doesn't hold you back?
"I think that people have to make a choice to be strong for themselves. No one else is going to help you unless you help yourself first and that is what keeps me going. Like I’m not my MS—it's just a part of me."