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Ann Romney tackles multiple sclerosis head-on

Ponders public role in war against illness

When Ann Romney was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, her son Craig cried because a friend had told him the disease would kill her.

"Craig, I'm not going to die from this," she recalled assuring him more than four years ago.

Yesterday the governor's wife was at an MS walkathon in Hyannis, raising money to help people live with the disease and talking about her experience.

"I would rather say, you're either going to be cured, or you're going to die. I hate living with the thought," Romney said.

After a pause, she added, "But that's just the adjustment you go through with that first year. The first year of the disease is horrible, because you just can't stand living with this cloud that's over you and that's sort of moved into your body."

Romney, 54, has kept a fairly low profile as the wife of Governor Mitt Romney, but she says she is contemplating a more public role in the fight against MS. Yesterday marked her second appearance this year to promote the MS walkathon.

She left her Belmont home around 5:30 a.m. yesterday for Hyannis Village Green to kick off the three-day, 50-mile MS Challenge Walk on Cape Cod. Applause erupted when she was introduced. She walked steadily to the podium and asked the audience if they knew anyone with MS.

Most raised their hands.

Multiple sclerosis is a chronic, often disabling disease of the central nervous system that affects about 400,000 people nationwide, according to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Symptoms may be mild, such as numbness in the limbs, or severe enough to cause blindness or paralysis. The progress, severity, and symptoms for each individual cannot be predicted, the society said.

Romney was diagnosed at about the time her husband took over the Salt Lake City Olympics. When Mitt Romney was considering a run for governor, she admitted she was reluctant to leave Utah because her health was improving there. But she has continued an active life in Massachusetts, and regularly rides horses, drives a car, and joins her family on ski trips.

Yesterday, Ann Romney described the disease as inconsistent.

"There are times when we're fine, and there are times when we're not," she explained. "Even the times when you're fine we have to be careful about our energy and how we spend the energy."

Romney's diagnosis provided a measure of relief because it gave her a name to go along with her sickness, she said.

Before being diagnosed with the illness, Romney had feared she may have had Lou Gehrig's disease, she said.

"It settles in. You realize it's not going away in a few months. It sinks in, and you know," she said in an interview.

Romney extolled medical advances in treating multiple sclerosis. She praised Biogen, a Cambridge-base biotechnology company and MS Challenge Walk sponsor, for "working hard to try to develop drugs to slow the disease."

However, she also praised those stricken with MS for their ability to adapt to the limitations and challenges it poses.

"We have to be very conscientious about taking care of our health at all times," she told the crowd. Romney said she may increase her public profile as a crusader in the battle against multiple sclerosis.

"I'm thinking about it," she said, with a smile. "I'm pretty settled with where I am with the disease."

The second annual MS Challenge Walk, organized by the Central New England chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, thus far has raised more than $1 million.

Proceeds will benefit Home Links, a new care management program to help people with MS access private and public health care resources and services.

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