In 1996, with five No. 1 hits under his belt, country music singer Clay Walker, then 26, should have felt as if he was on top of the world. Instead, he felt besieged by odd physical sensations: a spasm on the right side of his face that lasted for eight weeks, a shaky right hand and double vision.
Convinced he had brain cancer, he underwent a series of tests. He wasnt diagnosed with a tumor but still left the physicians office reeling. Walkers doctor told him he had multiple sclerosis (MS), a chronic inflammatory disease of the central nervous system, and that he would be in a wheelchair in four years and likely would die within eight. I cried for two days thinking, Is this really happening? says Walker, now 40.
Not one to sit on the sidelines, Walker researched the disease with gusto and sought other opinions. Three neurologists later, a doctor suggested he try a new drug that had been shown to significantly reduce relapses. Reluctantly, Walker agreed, and soon his MS went into remission.
Thankful for his new lease on life, Walker founded the nonprofit organization Band Against MS (BAMS), to encourage and educate people with the disease.
There are 500,000 people living with MS in the U.S., and nearly half of them arent on any medication at all, says Walker, who believes that people who are newly diagnosed with MS should consider getting on a drug treatment immediately. Its important to be proactive, he says.
BAMS raises money to fund MS research and to help organizations assisting those with MS. The BAMS bike team (www.bikebams.org), an arm of the nonprofit, has raised more than $76,000 to fund the cause.
BAMS also offers diet and exercise advice and information and celebrates unsung heroes of the disease on its website, bandagainstms.org.
We are always meeting someone who blows your mind, whether its the caregiver or someone with MS, says Walker, who splits his time between Nashville, Tenn., and Galveston, Texas (pop. 57,247).
One such hero is Cindy Wenske, of Houston, Texas, who was diagnosed with MS in 1991. As an injection nurse, Wenske trains others with the condition to give themselves shots of an MS drug. A longtime fan of Walker, Wenske became associated with BAMS when she was asked to do a short yoga training video for the organizations website. When the video director heard about her work as a nurse, he wanted to feature her on the Heroes Page.
It was a great experience for me because it was the first time I had to tell my story, says Wenske, 41. It also helped her realize the personal strides she had made to deal with the disease. I remember thinking, I have come a long wayfrom being severely depressed to standing here doing a yoga video for Clay Walker!
Walker, who has been in remission for 12 years, insists his case is nothing special. The bottom line is Im walking around, riding horses, golfing, doing things that totally crushed the prognosis the first doctor gave me. The fact that I can do all these physical activities and that I never missed a show due to MS is not a miracle. There are a whole lot of other people out there who should investigate their treatment options.
Walker, whose 10th album was released in June, hasnt written songs specifically about his experiences with MS, but says that the disease informs the way he lives. And that reflects in my songwriting, says the father of four. It reflects the way I view my family. Nothing comes before my family. There are not a lot of things in life that bring tremendous joy. When something like that comes my way, I really soak it in.