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TV doctor Dr Christian Jessen: My family's battle with MS

TV doctor Dr Christian Jessen's explored a huge variety of health problems on but, until now, has never revealed a family tragedy caused by one condition - multiple sclerosis.

Milestone birthdays often provoke mixed emotions, but Dr Christian Jessen felt only a surge of relief when he celebrated his 30th.

Reaching that age, unscathed by ill health, he believed he'd managed to escape a debilitating condition which he'd seen devastate the life of one of his closest relatives.

The TV doctor, best known for his medical advice on Channel Four's Embarrassing Bodies, grew up watching his uncle, Volker, battle multiple sclerosis (MS).

The condition affects nerves in the brain and spinal cord, causing a range of symptoms, including problems with movement, balance and vision.

[Related story: MS: Do you know the symptoms of Multiple Sclerosis?]

Worldwide, more than 2.3 million people (around 100,000 in the UK) are affected by MS and symptoms tend to appear when people are in their twenties and thirties, although can develop at any age. It is two to three times more common in women than men.

'Fate can be cruel'
"My father's brother, Volker, who was a vet, lived with MS for more than 25 years and was just under 30 when he was diagnosed, before I was born," recalls Dr Christian, 38, who's supporting new website, 1MSg (one message) providing information and advice for MS patients.

"It's still not known what causes this condition - there may be a slight genetic link, although it's very low. It does seem to run in families, but the risk is small. My parents were worried about my developing it later in life, but were reassured by a specialist when I was a toddler that it wouldn't happen to me," he says.

"To be honest, I'm not actually sure how that doctor could have been so dismissive or certain of that diagnosis, but certainly, that reassurance helped them at the time. As I grew up though, I became conscious that fate can sometimes be cruel.

"I thought, 'Volker and I share similarities'. He trained to a high level as a vet and then was struck down, and there I was, following in his footsteps by entering the medical profession to graduate as a doctor. I sometimes thought, 'Wouldn't it be typical if I suffered from the same condition?' When my inner pessimist - medical students tend to think they've got every disease they learn about - nagged me, I'd occasionally succumb to a fleeting fear that it was almost bound to happen.

"So although people don't normally breathe a sigh of relief when they reach 30, I did, and as the years have gone by, I'm now pretty certain I won't be affected."

His uncle had the most common type, relapsing remitting MS, where symptoms come and go and, in remission, may improve or disappear.

Those with primary progressive MS, which affects 10% of patients, have symptoms that get steadily worse and the onset of the disease tends to be later in life in those in their forties or fifties.

Raising awareness
"At one stage doctors thought wrongly - because my uncle lived in an old house with lead piping - that he was suffering lead poisoning. There just wasn't the awareness there is today nor advances in treatments which are so effective in helping manage and control symptoms nowadays," Dr Christian explains.

[Related story: Dr Christian Jessen: Appendicitis almost killed me]

"For my uncle, it must have been devastating to finally get such a diagnosis - in those days it meant premature death - whereas today, MS doesn't significantly shorten life expectancy. When he was diagnosed in the late Seventies, there were only steroids and other medications to relieve symptoms and latterly he suffered agonising muscle spasms and pain.

"Now treatments, particularly for relapsing remitting MS, aim to modulate the immune system so it's less likely to attack the central nervous system."

"His MS often made him very tired and weak and as the disease progressed, it affected his speech so sometimes he could sound a bit slurry, as if he was drunk. He died aged 55 in 2003 when I was 25. It was very sad for our family, but because he'd tried every treatment available at the time, he lasted far longer than the doctors predicted.

"He was a very determined man who throughout his life refused to be defined by his illness and I see this now with many of my patients. Today, just because someone has MS it doesn't mean they can't lead a happy, healthy life."

By revealing his family's tragedy he aims is to raise awareness and encourage MS sufferers to have regular assessments by a specialist.

'I'd welcome a return of Embarrassing Bodies'
"Latest figures show nearly a fifth of patients haven't seen a specialist for a year and yet those appointments are so key, so medication can be updated and tailored more effectively and, if necessary, more help including talking therapies or support groups - a lifeline for many - can be accessed," he says.

Using his high profile and knowledge to improve patients lives is familiar territory for this practising doctor who's combined his career with working in television. He's focused on a variety of issues including a controversial Channel Four documentary in 2014, Cure Me, I'm Gay - he is gay and lives with his partner in London - as well as presenting a health series about extreme eaters, Supersize vs Superskinny.

Last year he investigated methods used by the super-rich to defy mortality for another Channel Four series, How The Rich Live Longer.

"I'd welcome a return of Embarrassing Bodies which was a ground-breaking show that, I think, over eight years changed the way we thought about health," he says.

"It was a victim of its own success in a way and I think became rather over-exposed, and seemed to be on all the time at one point.

"It's popular worldwide so we may be looking at some international versions. Generally, awareness and knowledge of health can literally change people's lives and playing just a small part in that is a privilege."

Dr Christian Jessen is supporting a new website, 1MSg (one message), which gives information and advice to multiple sclerosis (MS) sufferers. The 1MSg campaign is supported by Biogen.

Story Source: The above story is based on materials provided by BT
Note: Materials may be edited for content and length

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