Adopting a fighting spirit to manage disease
Can a fighting spirit help handle a health crisis? In some cases, the answer is yes.
Boston-based boxer George Foreman III, 32, son of the former two-time world heavyweight champion, was raised to believe that “fight is better than flight” when it comes to challenges, and he found a kindred spirit in Mary McAlary. The 66-year-old multiple sclerosis patient from Andover decided to battle her potentially crippling disease with a lifestyle overhaul that included switching to an organic whole-foods diet — and she’s in better shape physically now than she was a decade ago when her disease was diagnosed.
McAlary, who recently became a holistic health coach, and Foreman teamed up to write a new motivational book, “The Fighting Spirit” (Changing Lives Press), after Foreman overheard McAlary giving advice to his friend and gym business partner A.J. Rich on managing his high blood pressure. “She was talking just like my father, telling A.J. that he has to fight back against his condition,” Foreman said.
Besides counseling clients to buy organic produce and read food labels to avoid sugar and artificial additives, McAlary tries to inspire them to don the metaphorical boxing gloves and start swinging.
After being diagnosed with MS, McAlary was prescribed Betaseron injections to keep the disease from progressing, but side effects such as nausea and flu-like symptoms left her sprawled on the couch, too tired to exercise or play with her grandchildren. “I wasn’t improving,” she said. She went through five neurologists in Boston until she found one
at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center who was willing to take her on as a patient even though she
refused to take any prescription medications.
“He made me promise that if I got more disabled, I would reconsider and go back on the drugs, and I agreed,” McAlary said. Her biggest challenge: learning to overcome fears of a sudden disease attack that would leave her in a wheelchair or blind. She did this by reducing stress through prayer and volunteer work, taking daily walks, and enrolling in classes at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition in New York. There she learned to use her gourmet cooking skills to make foods that would help control inflammation, such as a vegetarian stew made with Swiss chard, tomatoes, and white beans.
Dr. Revere Kinkel, who treated McAlary at Beth Israel Deaconess
before becoming director of the
multiple-sclerosis program at the University of California, San Diego, said the lifestyle changes she made had benefits for improving the course of her disease and should be part of a discussion that all doctors have with MS patients, whether they take medications or not.
McAlary, who remains off medications, advises clients to stay on their prescriptions unless they get their doctor’s approval to halt. But she does teach them that “their best defense is their offense,” which involves making smarter lifestyle choices.