Most fans know me as one of country's top artists, performing for sold-out crowds, singing the national anthem at many professional sporting events, hosting and appearing on different TV networks or even doing a spread for some of the top fashion magazines. What a lot of them do not know is that in 1996, at the age of 26, I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. After coming to grips with this devastating blow, I knew this disease wouldn't defeat me and should not be treated as such. If you had asked me when I was diagnosed, that very first day, if I would still be alive today, honestly my response would have been "no" -- but that is because the neurosurgeon who diagnosed me told me that I'd be in a wheelchair in four years and probably dead in eight. Now, 16 years later, I am still walking around, riding horses, playing golf, chasing my kids and still performing for sold-out crowds.
Prior to this diagnosis I was on top of the world. I had just completed my fourth album, already had five No. 1 hits under my belt and my first daughter had just been born. So what do you do when you're handed your death sentence on a platter? Well, I will tell you what I did: a lot of research. At the time of my diagnosis, not much was known about the disease but if my upbringing had taught me anything, it is that you can always persevere with sheer will and determination. I grew up dirt poor -- literally! We grew our own vegetables, raised chickens and hunted our own food, not to be healthy, but simply to survive. So if my childhood had prepared me for anything, it was survival and perseverance. This diagnosis inspired me to take responsibility for my health and fitness and did not change my outlook on my career. I was now on a mission to take control of my disease and lend my celebrity to help others in the same position.
Being the oldest of five children I took it upon myself to be a strong and positive influence for my siblings from a young age and in a way, my MS diagnosis has led me to take on a similar role within the MS community. For eight years I battled this disease privately while being in the public eye, but then it hit me -- without people raising awareness and being vocal, fewer people will hear about MS! I felt that was something I could do and use my voice and fundraising capabilities to get out there and let people know there is something we can do. With so little information readily available to MS patients, I formed Band Against MS (BAMS), which is a 501(c)(3) that provides educational information for those living with MS, funds programs researching a cure and supports those living with the disease.
After coming forward with the disease, I was able to connect with thousands of individuals living with MS by speaking at MS educational seminars, addressing members of Congress about new legislation to address the needs of those living with MS and filming TV and radio PSAs to support MS research to end the devastating effects of MS. With a disease like MS, I have also learned that some of the best information comes from those living with it. Because of this, I encourage people to share their stories and experiences. This authentic giving and receiving of information within the MS community is what helps everyone, which is why when anyone living with MS is generous enough to share their experiences, they are posted. Further, sometimes all it takes is someone else's inspirational story of survival, determination and or hope to motivate a newly diagnosed or seemingly defeated MS patient to turn it around and take control of their life.
This is why I created what we call BAMS Heroes, where we highlight the outstanding individuals living with MS or contributing to the cure. These are everyday people who have made a difference in the lives around them. So while I am often told I am an inspiration and a hero to these people, we are all an inspiration for each other. One of our heroes is Jade Harmer, who is 14; at the age of 10, this young girl living with MS went to Congress and got a bill reintroduced to legislation that would help with planning for services and health care needs, detect/monitor health practices, promote advocacy and support research for MS. This is just one of hundreds of inspirational stories that I could share with you about the people who have come to touch my life and are BAMS Heroes. When I think of these stories I reflect on how my diagnosis has reminded me, as my 1999 title track states, to "Live, Laugh, Love," fittingly my theme song and a message I hope continues to inspire many.