Need to Know: Does My MS Make Me Rare?

Tamara Sellman avatar

by Tamara Sellman |

Share this article:

Share article via email
nystagmus, ms nurse, cbd topicals, CAM, telemedicine and MS, complementary medicine

Editor’s note: “Need to Know” is a series inspired by common forum questions and comments from readers. Have a comment or question about MS? Please visit our forum.

I love it that Feb. 29 is Rare Disease Day in 2020. Leap day itself is a rarity, a gift of 24 more hours this year to enjoy at the whims of date-keepers. Who couldn’t use another day?

I gladly live those bonus hours with multiple sclerosis (MS). It’s considered a rare disease, though I find that hard to imagine. I live in the Pacific Northwest, an MS “cluster” region.

Listen, I know so many with MS these days. When I disclose my MS to a stranger, the frequent reply is, “Hey, I know someone with MS!”

Am I rare? Maybe, maybe not.

The Pacific Northwest is hardly the only MS cluster. Most occur in locations far from the equator. Research continues to map a higher prevalence of MS in Scandinavian countries, Ireland, Canada, and other northern countries.

What’s rare about MS?

For all the presence of MS in my community, many people still don’t know anything about it. Awareness, to me, is unfortunately rare in an MS cluster. It’s not as if the nonprofits, hospitals, and patient groups aren’t working overtime to educate the community.

I suspect a social disinterest in any chronic illness is at the root of the problem. Not just here, but everywhere. I don’t think it’s intentional, but rather a reflection of our cultural tendency to dismiss, ignore, or look away when confronted with the human face of chronic illness.

Listen, I get it.

Getting it

I know it’s cliché, but I’ll say it anyway: Nobody “gets it” until they “get it.” Myself included.

When a friend of mine was diagnosed with MS prior to my own diagnosis, I could only respond with sadness and fear. I, too, was ignorant about this snowflake disease.

Flashback: 1980s

My only previous exposure to MS came from volunteering for a Special Olympics event at my high school. I was assigned Tim, a boy in a wheelchair with speech problems.

Tim was a genius with an arch sense of humor, a rebellious teen of few words — but when he spoke, he was capital-A articulate.

At age 13, he didn’t want to do the “lame” activities set up for his peers. Instead, he boasted — and displayed — excellent skills as a gamer. This was at a time when video games began to emerge as cool activities for smart kids, when nerds would soon become culturally transformed into heroes.

Tim loved that I gave him free access to the entire campus — anywhere but the gymnasium with the Special Olympics kids. I suspect he felt a rogue freedom while circling the cinder track or visiting the smoking area (another 80s artifact). I happily indulged him, a teenager bent on breaking molds myself.

I served as his “handler” three years in a row. A few years later, the local paper featured Tim as a Make-A-Wish Foundation kid taking an extravagant trip that included — you guessed it — high-level video gaming. (I quietly fist-pumped when I read that.) He passed away from complications of MS not long after.

Fast-forward: The 2000s

I confess, after my friend’s diagnosis in 2001, I remember thinking the thing we hate to hear spoken aloud: “But you don’t look sick.”

Twelve years later, my own diagnosis elicited tears in some friends, who presumed I was “done for.”

Meanwhile, my friend had endured a divorce post-diagnosis and launched a career she enjoys today. She frequently globe-trots, has grandkids, and doesn’t use a wheelchair.

What both Tim and my friend taught me is this: We’ll ultimately find ways to live our best lives with MS, if that is our intention.

Keyword: intention.

What makes me rare?

I don’t think MS makes me rare. I think being a lifelong writer makes me lucky.

I always have my radar up, constantly in observation/eavesdrop mode. I study human behavior from the trenches and read voraciously. What I learn, I process and synthesize, then report through words.

Beyond the columns I write for Multiple Sclerosis News Today (and I learn so much by writing the “Need to Know” series!), I’m also a poet, a short-story writer, an essayist, a blogger, a journalist, and a teacher.

The more I learn about MS, the better I can both self-advocate and serve social media forums where newly diagnosed people struggle.

It’s my intent to spend the rest of my life doing this.

But will I succeed? That remains to be seen.

It can be hard. When vision problems or vertigo happen, I can’t use a computer. When fatigue hits, I lose hours to a couch. When I can’t find words, it’s a living hell.

(Note: My temporary inability to comprehend written words inspired the initial doctor’s visit that led to my diagnosis.)

Being unable to read is as terrifying to me as being wheelchair-bound.

But I persist. And that doesn’t make me rare, that makes me human and inspired.


Note: Multiple Sclerosis News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Multiple Sclerosis News Today or its parent company, BioNews Services, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to multiple sclerosis.


Jacqueline avatar


Thank you for sharing your talent with wit, compassion and humor. Your words are a refreshing reminder to persevere in our individuality and not allow MS to steal that which makes us unique. This was thoughtful and encouraging. Perfect for a Valentine’s Day reminder that love and hope are our most powerful ally. Words are a cure in themselves and you dispensed them with sensitivity and for that I am truly grateful.
I hope to read more of your articles.
Infinite Blessings,

Tamara Sellman avatar

Tamara Sellman

Thanks so much, Jacqueline! I'm just so happy to be given a moment to think about Tim. We've come a long way since the 1980s, when MS was a "diagnose and adios" situation. I'm also grateful that Tim made the most of his life doing the things he loved. Happy Valentine's Day!

Jennifer avatar


Am researching the useful of taking vitamin D.

Read the Overcoming MS Column about vitamin D. We MS folks need more than you know!

Louisa avatar


“Wheelchair bound“? Come on.

Brad Sutton avatar

Brad Sutton

Thanks for sharing. Admittedly, when I was diagnosed back in 2001 I didn't know anyone else who had the same diagnosis. Fortunately, for me back then and even more fortunately today my largest issue is fatigue along with the occasional bout of ocular-neuritis (which I realized last week in an eye appointment hasn’t happened in about 4 years). Any ways, it was unfortunate chatting with a close friend who was working with his family at a MS walk that another close friend from junior/high school was diagnosed with MS as well. I know Canada has the highest rate in the world, but I really wouldn’t have expected to have friend get similar news. Outside of that I quite often find the same thing; if someone finds out I have MS, they tell me they know someone else that does. It’s not nearly as uncommon as people thing. All the best, Brad


Leave a comment

Fill in the required fields to post. Your email address will not be published.

Dancing Doodle

Did you know some of the news and columns on Multiple Sclerosis News Today are recorded and available for listening on SoundCloud? These audio news stories give our readers an alternative option for accessing information important for them.

Listen Here