Clay Walker. Photo courtesy Getty Images.
Country crooner Clay Walker, 43, was racing up the country music charts when he was diagnosed with Relapsing Remitting Multiple Sclerosis (RRMS) in 1996. But instead of giving in to his fears, the tough Texan chose to look forward to his future.
The chart-topping country singer was on tour when he hit the gym for a basketball game. “As we walked into the gym, I noticed my right leg felt like it was asleep, as though I had slept on it funny,” he says. “I kept shaking it to wake it up.” A few minutes into the game, he says he fell to the floor. “Every time I’d try to stand back up, I’d fall down. It was though I was completely intoxicated.”
After falling about five times, Walker says he looked up at the net and saw double. “That’s when I knew something was definitely wrong.” Sitting out of the game for about an hour gave Walker plenty of time to ponder. “I kept wondering what could be going on with me,” he says. That hour was also enough time for most of his symptoms to subside.
Later that night, Walker took the stage for the final show of the tour. “My right leg had residual pain so I had to stand in one place,” he says—something that’s not characteristic for the typically mobile performer. Walker also experienced trouble playing guitar. “I couldn’t hold the pick between my thumb and fore fingerbecause I couldn’t feel it.”
Walker visited a neurosurgeon upon returning home and after a series of neurological tests, he was diagnosed with Relapsing Remitting Multiple Sclerosis (RRMS), the most common form of MS, accounting for approximately 40 percent of all cases.
“When the doctor said 'you have MS,' I didn’t even know what that was. I’d never heard of it,” Walker shares. Because he didn’t feel “sick,” the crooner quickly tried to rationalize away the diagnosis thinking “maybe the doctor is wrong” and “maybe he’s just guessing.” “My world was turning upside down. It was such a shock.”
Walker says there wasn’t a lot of information in any quantity or quality about the disease when he was diagnosed. “That left most people who were diagnosed with MS at the time completely devastated. You’re diagnosed with a life-altering disease and the doctors say there’s nothing that works for it...that’s very devastating.”
Walker says his MS went untreated for about eight months after diagnosis. “That, to me, is preposterous. I got a second opinion and that doctor started me on interferon, but I built up antibodies to that drug and had two relapses in a year’s time while on it.”
Walker was ready to walk away from drug therapies.
“I thought I could do as well on my own as I was doing on drug therapy,” he says.
Another doctor change led to an effective treatment. “The third neurologist I went to said that because I was in the early stages, we would find a therapy that would work. Thank the heavens I listened. He helped me find something that’s kept me relapse-free for nearly 15 years.”
In addition to finding a treatment plan, Walker channeled his energy into advocacy. “My doctor said finding the right treatment plan for me might take some fine tuning, but that we’d stick with it until we found one.”
And now his message for all patients dealing with MS (or any other chronic illness): “Stick With It,” which is also the title of a new campaign he’s working on with his charity Band Against MS.
“I’m surprised by the number of those people with MS who aren’t on a therapy. That’s a dangerous way to live,” says Walker. “Work with your doctor to find the right groove and stick with it.”
In addition to sticking with it, Walker cut out some unhealthy habits. “I steer clear of refined sugar, sodas, and carbonated drinks. I eat red meat once every two weeks instead of every day or two, and I eat a lot of vegetables.”
He also exercises…a little. “I exercise moderately. I actually hate exercising. It’s boring so I have to find ways to make it fun like listening to an audio book on the elliptical. But I know it’s necessary and I need to do to maintain my health and manage the disease or it will get the better of me.”
Walker first topped Billboard country singles charts in 1993 with What’s It to You. Since then he’s placed more than three dozen titles on the hit list and remained one of the busiest artists on the road. His first book, Jesus Was a Country Boy, is due out in April 2013.
Despite all his accomplishments, Walker believes the best is yet to come. “I trust my gut more than ever now,” he says. “I feel healthier than I ever have. The best years of my life and career are still ahead of me.”
The symptoms of relapsing-remitting MS may include:
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