Tuesday, August 6, 2013


Although it is now almost 3 years since I've been diagnosed (6 Sept 2010), memories of that traumatic time flood back easily to make me relive that devastating period in my life.  Not only the patients, but also their families and friends are hit hard when receiving a diagnosis of an incurable, terminal disease.

Like many of you, the day I was diagnosed was the first time we had ever heard of this disease called Multiple System Atrophy (MSA).  Back at home we looked it up on Google. I glanced only very briefly at the symptoms listed, and quickly closed the lap top. That was too much information too soon. Some people can take the whole bitter pill in one go, but I was far from ready to face all those symptoms.

My mind was racing with thoughts and questions: Will we be able to cope with this? How fast will all of this happen? Why did this happen to me? Did I do anything wrong? What do I do now? Where do we start? The only prayer I could manage was the desperate cry; "Oh God, please help me!"

The neurologist said we would need all the help we could possibly get and referred us to a psychologist.  Faced with the diagnosis of a dread disease that would require drastic changes in our lifestyle, we went through many emotions and all the different stages of grief.  This can, and did put strain on relationship. My husband’s patience was tested to its limits during my ‘angry stage’ and he often had to bear brunt of my frustrations.  He’s still here supporting me.  Bless him!

My emotions roller coasted from sadness, extreme guilt, and fear and uncertainty of what the future held.   Grief is a natural response to loss, and I was going to have to face many losses in the future. 

On the psychologist recommendation I started writing down my feelings and experiences.  With my friend Karin’s help and encouragement I started my first blog post in my mother tongue Afrikaans, ‘Sonja se Griffels’, wondering whoever would want to read my first humble posts.  Writing however did help me to see my problems in perspective.

By the time of the final diagnosis I was fortunately past the first stage of denial.  This however didn't mean that everybody in my life was past denial.  Some took longer to get past denial and others never did.  They were consequently unable to deal with me and the disease and were left behind.  Perhaps facing my physical frailty reminded them too much that, in the blink on an eye, it could happen to them.

At first I isolated myself from other patients, fearing that those in a more advanced stage would only depress me further.  Grieving has no time limit, it’s a very personal experience, and there is no ‘right’ way to do it.  It took me the best part of the first year to digest the diagnosis, the changes taking place in my body, and what I would have to face in the future.  This is an ongoing process as the disease progresses.
Before all this happened, I was fit and healthy.  When the first symptoms presented, I tried to fight it by becoming fitter and living healthier.  I bought organic foods from farmer’s markets, distilled our water, and juiced vegetables and fruits.  I still believe in, and reap the benefits of a healthy lifestyle, but going to extremes didn't stop the disease from progressing.  I therefore concluded that life is best lived balanced. 

Many well meaning friends have over the years suggested many therapies and ‘cures’.  If I had to try them all out, we’d be bankrupt.  I have come up with the following question for such suggestions; has the product/therapy been subjected to double blind clinical tests specifically for MSA?  I have yet to receive a positive answer.  There are currently dedicated researchers trying to solve the mysteries of MSA, but this is a process that takes time.  You’ll have to decide if there is anything out there that seems worthwhile to try.  

I found the love and support of my family and friends, and avoiding stress as far as possible, to be the best medicines.  The support of my kind, and always available neurologist, who regularly attends conventions on movement diseases, has gone a long way in keeping me satisfied that I'm receiving the best care currently available.

Sometime before the diagnosis the doctor prescribed an anti-depressant, which I still take.  Some may not agree with this - I however don’t believe in unnecessary suffering.  I also found humour and laughter helpful the ward off the blues.

Attitude can make a huge difference in how we cope with difficult situations.  I have adopted Viktor Frankl’s philosophy from his book, ‘Man’s search for Meaning’, as my own;

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” 

This is my life and I had a choice how I could respond to this.  I have an incurable disease and it will only get worse, but I wasn't going to spend to rest of my life being miserable as well.  I had plenty of people to love and to live for, and I am blessed with their love in return.

It took me the best part of the first year before I tentatively started reaching out to others with the disease.  My first step was to register on ‘Patients like Me’, where I searched for others who were more or less at the same stage as me.  I found plenty in a far worse state than me.  Their plight triggered deep feelings of compassion, and I stopped feeling sorry for my self.  

Concerned, I wondered how I could help them. When I first heard projects to create awareness for MSA, I was ready and eager to put my name and face to this disease and join these campaigns.  With plenty of help from my supporting friend Karin, we organised our first local awareness event.  This added new purpose to my life.

I have since been privileged to make contact and get to know many patients and/or their families from all over the world, as well as a few locally.  From them I have not only learned a lot about the disease, but also how to cope with it.  We support each other, and they have enriched my life. Now I can not imagine my life without my compassionate MSA buddies.

Being a fiercely independent person before, accepting the help from others was very difficult initially.  I have since learnt the valuable lesson that in accepting help you give a gift to the giver.  Don’t underestimate the value this can add to the lives of others, and the new depth in friendships/relationships this can lead to.  In turn, reaching out to fellow patients in their darkest hours has added value to my life.

Living with an incurable disease has caused my life to take on a new intensity.  I love more deeply, have more compassion, value friendships deeply, laugh more joyously, take more joy in music, and appreciate the beauty of nature more.  I live in the moment, savouring every beautiful moment.  The awareness that my earthy life, like all life, is finite has made it more precious.  
One can never be fully prepared for the expected diminished capacities, but I hope my mental  and spiritual preparation will soften the impact.  Concentrating on what I have left has made what I have lost easier to endure.  I now see my physical body as only a part of the real me.  This allows me to look at the disease objectively, to accept it, but not succumb to it.  Coming to acceptance is an ongoing journey, a destination to aspire to.  I now often experience the inner peace that comes with acceptance.  At times I cry a little, but it is no longer tears of desperation for I am not without hope. 

Dear fellow patient, you are at a cross road in your life now. Your journey will not be the same as mine.  It will be unique to you and how you respond to this extreme challenge.  The road ahead will be rough.  Open your heart to see the beautiful flowers along this road.  They will be there. 

Blessings for your journey,

                                                                                                                                                                    Psalm 10:17 - You, Lord, hear the desire of the afflicted; you encourage them, and you listen to their cry                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     


  1. Sonja, This is very well written and so true to the experience I had seven years ago. I am grateful for your expressive talents and glad you are sharing it with all of us who have MSA or are supporting someone who does. God bless you in your own struggle as you do so much to guide and share yourself with others. Dan

    1. Dan,thank you for this positive comment and compliment. I feel humble in the presence of someone who has wrtten a book on MSA. God bless

  2. Thank you for opening your heart and life to us Sonja. It is priviledge to walk a few virtual steps with you through your story. Anton

  3. Thanks for opening your heart to us Sonja and inviting us fellow travellers to join you for a few virtual steps on your journey. Your honesty is inspiring and touching. Thanks so much, Anton

    1. Thank you Anton. Although your problem is different, their are many similarities in our journeys and I enjoy reading about yours. Sonja

  4. Thank you for sharing your writing. I was diagnosed in January and am at the" haunting health food shops looking for a cure stage" of MSA. Did you ever have a private water supply? Could your water have contained copper? Mine did and I'm doing an informal survey. May our paths continue to cross as we proceed on our journeys.

  5. Veronica, thank you for your comment. We have municipal water supply, but live in an old house and I have often wondered if some of the pipes are copper. Are there any indications that copper could cause MSA? Blessings for your journey. Sonja

  6. Dear Sonja
    Thank you for your blog and for opening you life and your experiences to those of us who follow. I think, although it is not yet confirmed, that I too have MSA. I have followed your blog for a while and gained huge courage from your experiences.
    I live in Cape Town and would love a chance to connect with you but am not sure how to do this out of the public domain.
    Best wishes and much love

    1. Dear Anne
      Thank you for reading my blog. I'm sorry to hear of the suspected MSA. I would love to make contact with you. Please email me at
      Best wishes and love

  7. Dear Sonja,

    I found your blog very inspiring and I'm glad to find someone else who suffers from this (and has been correctly diagnosed) in South Africa. I myself am from Johannesburg, and have very recently been diagnosed with POTS (and the associated dysautonomia.) I would love to make contact with you and perhaps get advice about the support structures you have in place; I'm finding it difficult to find out specific information with regard to whether my POTS and MSA dysautonomia diagnosis is treated as a dread disease in South Africa, as I am currently struggling to cope professionally in a highly demanding executive position. If all right with you, I shall contact you on your iafrica email address.

    I do hope you are doing well, despite the disheartening prognosis for POTS and dysautonomia sufferers.

    With kind regards,

  8. Thank you for your kind comment. There is a dysautomiia and pots group on facebook. Because MSA patiients havedysautonomia, I post some information about thiis on our facebook page.Have a look at the schematic illustratioin unnder the headiing MSA WHAT IS at the top of the blog.My best wiishes and prayers for you,Sonja

  9. dear anymous, please excuse the mistakes, i can't read the small are welcome to contact via email. warm regards,sonja

  10. thank you for your very open letter Sonja.I was diagnosed 6 years ago and like most people had never heard of MSA.Since that time i have been through all the emotions you have mentioned and more. MY wife has been absolutely wonderful to me. We were left very much alone except for my own GP who sought out and put in place every thing she possibly could to aid and help me in any way possible and for this i will be eternaly grateful.I am a very determined individual and from the start found every bit of information about MSA that i could.I know there is no cure and no real treatment,but i will fight this terrible thing inside me with every fibre of my being.Iand my family have cried and grieved together, i feel that they are the ones who suffer more.I have come to terms with the fact that i will die, but have no fear of this.I have put my life in order for my family.I LOVE THEM SO VERY, VERY MUCH.I was told to keep exercising by a physio and do a set of exercising every day and eat more of a varied diet,but nothing to drastic.In the beginning i was told in no uncertain terms that there was nothing that could be done for me.My own GPand i discussed the way forward and decided i would keep my body in as fit and healthy a state i could and along with medication to treat the individual symptoms i have fought to do this. Ihave also tried to keep my mind as active and proficient as i can.I must have read 6000 books and done a million crosswords and entered so many competitions, i have lost count.Listen i am not a fool,i know and have been told i am getting worse but i can and will keep fighting it will not take me without a very hard fight,believe me. Sonja i send you all the love in the world and think putting things into words for others to read and try to understand what we and others are going through is a wonderful and very gracious thing. May youre god be with you and love you for all time. Michael from south WALES.


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