Montel Williams: Living with MS

WebMD Live Events Transcript

Montel Williams faces challenges everyday in his role as an award-winning talk show host. But none compare with the challenge of living day-to-day with MS - multiple sclerosis. He joined us on March 8 to talk about his fight against MS.

The opinions expressed herein are the guests' alone and have not been reviewed by a WebMD physician. If you have questions about your health, you should consult your personal physician. This event is meant for informational purposes only.

Welcome to WebMD Live, Montel. Thank you for joining us today. Our audience has a great number of questions for you.

Thank you so much for having me and giving me this opportunity to share what really is my personal journey with MS. I'm hoping the people that are on to ask questions recognize that my book Climbing Higher isn't just about people who suffer from MS, it's about people suffering from any chronic deadly illness and the people who love them.

How old were you when you had your first symptom, looking back?

Like so many of us, and I believe the number is somewhere around 45% to 50%, you can check this through your doctor, our initial symptoms are first in the vision or visual acuity. About four months before I graduated from the Naval Academy in 1980, and it just so happened to be coincident with my precommissioning inoculations (before you graduate from the Academy you have to receive all your immunizations to travel around the world), coincident with my diphtheria and typhoid shots, for whatever reason, it triggered my first MS bout. I lost 80% vision in my left eye and was put on medical hold on the military because they thought I would be blind in one eye. My commission was held up when I graduated, because at that moment I was not qualified to become a naval officer.

I then saw doctors from the Naval Academy, Walter Reed, Bethesda Naval Hospital and Johns Hopkins, none of whom could determine the etiology of my loss of vision. No one at the time even speculated MS, because if you look back, this was 1980 and back then, the disease was only associated with Caucasian females of northern European descent, and here I was a 22-year-old African-American male and at that point 100% in great shape. MS was the farthest thing from any doctor's mind.

I went on to cyclically remit and relapse for the next 19 years before I was diagnosed. In some ways I can look back and say I'm glad it took them 19 years, because had I received the prognosis that most doctors were giving back then, I probably would have given up on myself and not be where I am today.

"I may not be able to run and play basketball, but believe me, I can be there when you do and even if I have to roll myself up there, I'll be there for you."

How did you tell your family that you had MS and did they understand the difficulties that you were looking at in the future?

That was one of the hardest things I had to do. In my book Climbing Higher , I try to explain the fact that I was kind of forced into becoming honest. My office had been receiving some calls from one of the national tabloids, inquiring into some medical information. They had surreptitious information they had received about an MRI I had taken. I should say I was diagnosed in January 1998. I didn't come forward until August 1998, because when this tabloid threatened to go forward with the story I decided I would control the information about myself.

At this point the only person who knew was my ex-wife. I had not told my children, my parents, or even the company that syndicated my show, and I didn't do so because of the same fear that a lot of the people writing in today have, because as soon as you say you are ill in this country, people automatically assume you are weak, and in my profession, television, we don't tolerate weakness. The reason why I hid my diagnosis is because I thought if I came forward, I'd lose my job. I thought I'd lose my family.

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