Γιαννης Παπαδοπουλος

Dancing away a disease

By Ioannis Papadopoulos

NORTHBORO- At the end of March, Cathy McAuliffe’s moves on the dance floor will last about two songs, long enough to give her hope that she can still stand on her legs, and short enough to remind her, when weakness takes over, that her body has betrayed her.

Ms. McAuliffe, 46, has multiple sclerosis.

In June 2003, she was diagnosed with this chronic, often disabling disease that attacks the central nervous system. Almost five years later she is organizing a dancing fundraiser in Westboro, on March 28, to raise money for research and hopefully a cure to multiple sclerosis.

“I just love moving my body to a good beat, when I listen to the music I feel free,” she said.

Ms. McAuliffe, a Northboro resident and mother of two, has primary-progressive multiple sclerosis, a type of the disease that is characterized by slowly worsening neurological function. She is still mobile, but she gets tired quickly and she has balance and focusing problems. She uses a wheelchair only when she goes to the mall, to conserve energy.

“I am trying to be as independent as I can,” she said. “I feel uncomfortable on a wheelchair. I feel I don’t belong on a wheelchair.”

According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, approximately 400,000 Americans and about 2.5 million people worldwide have multiple sclerosis. Two thirds of the patients remain able to walk. But in the most severe cases the disease can lead to paralysis or loss of vision.

Ms. McAuliffe saw the first signs of the disease on her left arm. “I would hold coffee cups and glasses and would fall off my hand. You don’t know how many dishes I have broken,” she said.

Her life has changed dramatically since 2003. Before the disease she was an energetic person, working 80 hours a week as a hotel sales department director. Today she is not working, her husband does the cooking and her sons, Sean, 14, and Patrick, 11, do the laundry.

Ms. McAuliffe says she tries to live each day to the fullest because she doesn’t know what tomorrow might bring. “It is challenging. I am so happy when I can get up from the bed in the morning and go into the bathroom,” she said.

Two years before her diagnosis she lost her mother to cancer. Watching her die with courage, she says, gave her strength to deal with her disease. “You have to look at it as an adventure, and I do it every day. I like to see the glass half full.”

Music is a big part of her life. At home she always listens to jazz. Last time she danced was at Christmas, at a party. She said she used to dance a lot in her 20s. But on March 28, she said she would probably be able to stay on the dance floor for two songs. Her husband will be leading her.

She hopes that at least 150 people will show up at her fundraiser and that she will collect $3,000 for the New England chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

Sally Gould, major gift officer of the MS Society in New England, met Ms. McAuliffe a few months ago at a women against multiple sclerosis event in Worcester. She says she admires Ms. McAuliffe’s courage to talk publicly about her disease and fight for a cure.

“In our culture often we are not rewarded for disclosing our weaknesses,” she said. “Cathy is a wonderful person. She steps out and says ‘I’m dealing with this.’ She is raising awareness and helping to make a difference.”

Rick McAuliffe has been married to Cathy McAuliffe for 17 years. He says that multiple sclerosis is a scary disease. “You don’t know what to expect. It affects people in different ways,” he said. “But I dream that some day there will be a drug that will help Cathy and will stabilize the disease.”

Ms. McAuliffe feels bad for her husband. “This wasn’t what we bargained for when we were married,” she said.

At the end of March, on the dance floor of the Knights of Columbus Hall she will follow his every step. “His life will be an adventure to learn the new me,” she said.

(This story was published at the Worcester Telegram & Gazette)

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