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Marie Nitke/FOCUS Colleen Sazama (left) of Dent and Mary Chase of Richville are working to raise awareness of MS in the Perham area. This week is MS Awareness Week.

Friends share battle against Multiple Sclerosis

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Mary Chase of Richville went to bed one night feeling fine; she awoke in the morning feeling numb from her neck to her toes.

It was that fast and unpredictable.

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And it was terrifying for her.

When doctors diagnosed Chase with Multiple Sclerosis (MS), "I was really scared," she said. "I thought, 'this is it.'"

She reached out to a support group in a nearby community, where she met people who were hit harder by the disease than she was, and at younger ages. It only heightened her worst fears.

That was in the late '90s, and she knew very little about the disease. She didn't know then that MS affects everyone differently. She didn't know that, more than 20 years later, she could still be walking around as she always had, showing no outward signs of the disease.

After weeks of anxiety and depression in those early days, she made a phone call to Colleen Sazama, of Dent.

That call would change both their lives. Not only did it steer them down a path toward a decades-long friendship, it pointed them toward a new purpose - MS advocacy.

Like Chase, Sazama is a woman living with MS. Diagnosed in 1994, her symptoms were fairly undetectable to those around her until very recently, when she began using a cane to walk. Her condition has taken a toll, even causing her to leave her job at Farmer's State Bank after 28 years.

Yet both women remain resilient, and hopeful.

After that first phone call in 1998, they started their own local support group, the Perham Self-Help and Caregivers Group. Their goal? Simply to share knowledge and compassion with others who suffer from the disease they've come to know so well. By 2000, they had also started a local MS Walk team.

"MS seems to take a little bit from people all the time," said Sazama. "Yet I can choose what I can do with what I have. I can choose to advocate."

While the disease has slowed her mobility, Sazama chooses to see the good things that have come from it: "It has blessed me with a stronger faith, fabulous friendships, and unforgettable experiences."

MS is a chronic, often disabling disease that attacks the central nervous system. Symptoms may come and go, and vary widely from person to person - from mild numbness of the limbs to total paralysis or loss of vision.

While not well understood, it is thought to be an autoimmune disease.

According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, the body's own defense system attacks the fatty substance that surrounds and protects the nerve fibers of the brain and spinal cord. Ultimately, this can distort or interrupt the travel of the nerve fibers to and from the brain.

MS is a difficult disease to diagnose, and there is no known cure. But it is not fatal. Most people with MS learn to cope with the disease and are able to live productive lives with near-normal life expectancies. Many medications relieve or moderate symptoms, and the disease continues to be the subject of intensive worldwide research.

MS affects an estimated 400,000 Americans - about two-thirds of those women. Interestingly, it is more frequently found in people raised in colder climates.

Locally, Sazama and Chase said it seems almost everyone knows someone with MS.

There are about 10-15 people who regularly attend their support group. The group attracts participants from all over the area, sometimes even from neighboring counties. They meet the last Tuesday of the month at Calvary Lutheran Church.

With this week, March 12-16, being MS Awareness Week, Sazama and Chase have been extra busy visiting with community groups and businesses to garner support for their cause.

They're gearing up for two big events: First, the annual MS-Walk, being held this year in Fergus Falls on Sunday, May 6 from noon to 2 p.m.; and second, a pizza fundraiser at Pizza Ranch in Perham on Monday, April 23 from 5-7:30 p.m.

The local Walk team, the "Go-Getters," have been participating in the area walk since 2000. Sazama said they are usually one of the largest teams (with 25-30 walkers) and they always raise an impressive amount of money.

All proceeds from the walk and the pizza fundraiser, Chase said, will "help the community here."

"We've been so blessed," said Sazama. "This community just steps up to the plate - the businesses, the organizations, everyone."

For more information or to support the "Go-Getters," contact Mary at 218-298-0561 or Colleen at 218-758-2502.

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