Celebrating Women's History Month in Canada

Women's History Month in Canada invites us to delve into stories, struggles, and triumphs that have shaped the lives of countless women, particularly those in the MS community. From women who paved the way for breakthroughs in MS research, to those navigating the daily challenges of living with MS, this month is a tribute to their strength, resilience, and unwavering determination. 

Throughout October, we'll be taking a trip through history, sharing stories of women at the forefront of MS advocacy today, and shining a spotlight on those laying the foundation for a brighter future.  

Evelyn Opal: Co-Founder and Changemaker

“Go home and hope for the best”. 

In 1936, this is likely the kind of advice someone newly diagnosed with MS would receive. It was a time when the path forward post-diagnosis was shadowy and unclear. It was likely the kind of advice that Evelyn Gotleib Opal got in the wake of her own MS diagnosis. But she was not about to just “go home.”  

At 23, Evelyn was given a life-changing diagnosis, one followed by frustration in the face of a lack of resources for those navigating life with MS. This frustration made way for determination as she found herself with a new mission. With a vision beyond just survival, she became committed to raising awareness about the then-mysterious disease, mobilizing funds for critical research and, eventually, finding a cure. This led her to the newly formed National MS Society in the United States.  

Along with Harry Bell and Dr. Colin Russell of the Montreal Neurological Institute, Evelyn was about to redefine the landscape of MS in Canada. In 1948, this trio founded the MS Society of Canada – now known as MS Canada, a beacon of hope for the ever-growing number of individuals facing the realities of MS. Evelyn and her team’s unwavering vision laid the groundwork for a more optimistic future, better supports for those living with MS, and better-funded research, yielding improved treatments and a clearer understanding of how people are affected by this disease. 

For over four decades, Evelyn dedicated herself to this cause, working tirelessly to uplift those touched by MS. Her fundraising endeavors yielded millions of dollars, sparking a wave of transformation and discovery within Canada’s MS community. Yet, her impact extended beyond financial support. To this day, Evelyn’s work and legacy continue to offer support, empathy, and a reassuring presence to fellow Canadians navigating the turbulent waters of MS. 

During Women’s History Month and every other day, we are honoured to carry on her work. MS Canada stands as a living testament to Evelyn's commitment and unyielding determination. Though we have not yet achieved her vision of a cure for MS, the organization that she helped found has invested over $212 million dollars in research and has provided crucial support to the MS community through programming and advocacy work. Her legacy is woven into every breakthrough, every moment of connection, and every step closer to a future free of MS. 

Kelly-Ann Jones

Meet Kelly-Ann Jones. A mother, avid traveler, and dancer, Kelly-Ann's story is a reminder of the power of embracing every moment, even in the face of adversity.  

In the beginning, Kelly-Ann was worried about sharing her diagnosis. She grappled with the fear of stigma, uncertain of how her journey with MS would unfold. It was a pivotal moment when she realized the impact she could have by being open about her experience. As she reflected on her own path, Kelly-Ann made a conscious decision not to keep her journey to herself.  

“I realized that it wasn’t this big, scary thing to other people. Nobody treats me differently because I have MS. I made the choice to be open on social media because I realized that when I was newly diagnosed, I was searching for what it might look like for me. I'm certain that there's somebody else out there searching, just like I was. And while MS looks different for everybody, I thought, I can be an example. ”Kelly-Ann found not only a source of empowerment for herself, but also a way to reach out and support others who may be embarking on a similar path. 

“As a mom, I’ve found that living with MS has taught me to be very open with my daughter and to really just show her, be honest with her, and share how I'm feeling with her. It’s brought me a lot closer to her. Everybody deals with their own things, whether it’s MS or something else, I feel like I’ve given her the tools to be a compassionate human being.” 

In addition to her role as a mother, Kelly-Ann is a passionate traveler and Kizomba enthusiast. “I went on a trip to Portugal and I remembered hearing about a dance that was from Portugal and Angola and so I figured, why don't I go give it a try.” This adventurous spirit led her to a local dance festival.

“There were no beginner classes and everyone kept saying, ‘You're brave to come to this thing.’ I had no idea why they thought I was brave. Now I know, because it kicked my butt!” She returned home determined to master the art of Kizomba. Kelly-Ann's tenacity in the face of challenges extends far beyond the dance floor; it's a quality that defines her journey with MS as well.    

Life with MS has presented its challenges, but it's also been a powerful teacher. As Kelly-Ann puts it, “Living with MS has really taught me to just be a better human being. It's taught me to not put so much value on other people's perception of myself. It's taught me to be more compassionate because I realize that invisible illnesses are just one aspect—everybody has something they're living with. I’m not willing to judge a book by its cover because I don’t want to be judged either.” 

Kelly-Ann's journey has been transformative, showing that even in the face of the unknown, there is beauty in embracing new experiences. Her story is just one example of the power, resilience, and compassion that define women's history every day.

Women in MS Research

We're shining a spotlight on remarkable Canadian women who are making significant strides in a field that affects millions worldwide - MS research and treatment. Their dedication and expertise are shaping a brighter future for those affected by MS. Join us in recognizing the invaluable impact of these women in the quest for improved MS therapies and a better quality of life for all.

MSCanRehab - A Collaborative Network

This network stands as a testament to the power of unity in tackling the complexities of MS. What sets MSCanRehab apart is not only their multi-disciplinary research expertise but also the fact that every member of this extraordinary team is a woman.

Comprised of a team of multi-disciplinary rehabilitation researchers and clinicians from across Canada, MSCanRehab hopes to revolutionize the way we understand and treat MS. The network is a symphony of diverse disciplines harmoniously working together. Physiatrists, neuropsychologists, physical therapists, occupational therapists, exercise physiologists, clinical epidemiologists, and neuroscientists converge under the MSCanRehab banner. This amalgamation of expertise mirrors the very essence of MS care and treatment, where a holistic, interdisciplinary approach can be incredibly beneficial.

By bringing Canadian rehabilitation scientists together, MSCanRehab is setting research priorities and conducting collaborative clinical rehabilitation trials to move the field forward at a faster pace. Dr. Sarah Donkers emphasizes, "This is how change happens – collaboration! This is the team to lead this work combining years of clinical practice with years of research work in MS recovery, rehab, and symptom management. Together we can do better work faster to benefit the MS community. We combine interdisciplinary perspectives which are needed in comprehensive MS care. Our network will also help ensure long-term leadership and momentum in MS rehab and recovery."

In a field that demands urgency and precision, a collective like MSCanRehab holds immense promise. The power of many minds aligned towards a common goal ensures that research breakthroughs come swifter and with greater impact. By harnessing the collective intelligence and skills of its diverse, all-female members, MSCanRehab embodies a new ray of hope for accelerated progress in the fight against MS.

Meet the team!

Fractalkine: A Potential MS Therapeutic

Continuing the legacy of women making steps forward in MS research is Dr. Anastassia Voronova. In a recent study that we funded, Dr. Voronova led a team in a significant investigation that revealed a crucial player in MS remyelination - the molecule fractalkine. Through rigorous research, they demonstrated how fractalkine plays a role in promoting the restoration of myelin in an MS mouse model. 

Dr Anastassia Voronova

The implications of Dr. Voronova's  research are profound. By identifying fractalkine as a potential factor in remyelination, this study paves the way for a new era of therapeutics for MS. The potential to develop targeted interventions that bolster the body's natural capacity for healing and restoration is an exciting prospect, one that could have a significant impact on our community.

As we celebrate Women's History Month, these contributions stand to remind us of the pivotal role that women play in driving progress in scientific endeavours. As we look to the future, the work of women such as Dr. Voronova and the MSCanRehab researchers serves as a reminder of the immense potential in the world of research. Together, we can continue to push boundaries and advance our understanding and treatment of MS.

In recognizing Dr. Voronova and the dedicated women of MSCanRehab, we celebrate their invaluable contributions to the fight against MS. Their work speaks volumes to progress that can be achieved through commitment, collective expertise, and a shared vision for a better future for all those affected by MS.

As we continue this journey, it's important to stay informed about the latest advancements in MS research and treatment. By staying engaged and supporting these initiatives, we all play a part in driving progress and ultimately, in working towards a world where MS is a thing of the past. Together, we can make a difference. Stay tuned for more updates by subscribing to Research in Action. You can also check out the latest research news on our website.