Former NHL Player Bryan Bickell is Battling MS but Feeling Great with Tysabri

Jun 17 2017 - 6:53pm
Bryan and Amanda Bickell with daughters

Former NHL player Bryan Bickell is battling Multiple Sclerosis (MS) but feeling great with Tysabri. Bickell may be off the ice, but he is on to bigger things as spokesperson for Biogen and running his non-profit, the Bryan and Amanda Bickell Foundation which helps rescue abused pit bulls and provide people in need with service dogs. The 31-year-old Bickell announced his plans to retire from the NHL after a successful 2016-2017 season as winger with the Carolina Hurricanes.

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Since the 2015 playoffs with the Blackhawks Bickell had struggled with symptoms that didn’t seem related to the normal wear and tear of being a professional hockey player. He realized something was different. In November 2016 after several months and a battery of tests, he was finally diagnosed with relapsing multiple sclerosis (RMS).

RMS Symptoms and Treatment

MS is a neurological disorder that affects the brain, spinal cord, and optic nerves and occurs when the immune system attacks the myelin sheath, the protective layer covering nerve fibers. Damage to the myelin causes the formation of sclerotic lesions to form in the brain. Diagnosis can be difficult as symptoms are similar to those in other diseases.

Symptoms of MS can include visual impairment such as double vision, loss of motor function, tremors, weakness, tingling, numbness, pain, bladder or bowel problems like constipation or leakage, and fatigue but can vary greatly from person to person.

RMS, which constitutes 85% of all cases of MS, is characterized by the appearance of symptoms followed by remission. If caught early, as in Bickell’s case, symptoms are very manageable with diet, exercise, stress management, and medications like Tysabri, a drug classed as a monoclonal antibody which was developed by Biogen, Inc.

“During the 2015 playoffs something just wasn’t right,” says Bickell. “Then I started having pain in my right shoulder that felt like a pinched nerve, and tingling in my right arm and a few weeks later my right leg. It’s hard to describe, but I knew it was different. It was like they weren’t connected to my brain.”

Bickell, who with the Blackhawks won three Stanley cups, doesn’t know the meaning of the word defeat, and he credits his wife and children as well as the support he’s received from former Hawks and Hurricane coaches and teammates for having that stamina. Bickell spent nine seasons with the Hawks before being traded to the Hurricanes during the 2016 draft picks.

While the initial diagnosis in November 2016 came as a bit of a shock, so much so that he couldn’t tell his wife and simply asked her to speak to the doctor, he was determined not to let the disorder devastate him or his family. Bickell returned to finish the 2016 season with North Carolina before retiring. Bickell went out in style with a shoot-out goal that gave the Canes a 4-3 victory in the final season game.

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“There was a sense of relief at finally knowing what was wrong with my body,” says Bickell, “My wife is a great support and we are just taking it one day at a time. I’m enjoying being home with Amanda and my daughters and having time to fish.”

Bickell began treatments with the drug Tysabri after his diagnosis of RMS. “I’ve been on treatments with Tysabri now for several months and I’m feeling great,” says Bickell.

Bickell and his doctor, Timothy Vartanian, M.D., Ph.D., Professor of Neurology and Neuroscience and Director of the MS Center at Weill Cornell Medical College/New York Presbyterian Hospital are working closely together on a health plan which includes modification of diet, exercise, and stress management which are all important adjuncts in addition to medication to control his MS.

“I recommend a mostly plant-based diet with lots of colors, as well as elimination of sugar which creates an overgrowth of bad bacteria in the gut,” says Vartarian, “Eating cold water, fresh caught fish high in Omega-3 and avoiding deep water fish that could contain mercury is very important.”

Exercise has been found to be one of the most important factors in managing symptoms of MS. According to studies on children with MS, those who participated in vigorous exercise at least 30 minutes a day had fewer relapses, experienced less depression and has smaller and fewer lesions.

“Adults, especially those with MS should exercise 30 – 45 – even 60 minutes a day,” says Vartanian. “Exercise helps patients manage stress.”

When asked about alternative therapies such as fucoidan or stem cells treatments as adjuncts to therapy, Dr. Vartanian replied that he would consider them “as long as there is science-based evidence to support the use.”

Bickell and his wife Amanda aren’t letting his diagnosis stop them in any way and plan to advocate for other MS patients by working with Biogen and via their non-profit. Their love of pit bulls began while living in Chicago when the couple rescued a pit bull puppy from a crack dealer who had taken the pups away from their mother too soon and had cut off their tails with a knife. They offered him $50 for the puppy and he literally threw the young pup at Amanda. In 2012, the Bickell’s got involved with a campaign in Chicago to rescue pits called Chicago Loves Pits and Bickell appeared on a billboard which read “Bryan Bickell is the only fighter in this family”, a statement that they could never have guessed would have a dual meaning.

While Bryan Bickell is prepared to for the battle of his life, he finds that staying busy and helping others helps him manage his stress and feel better. He and his wife started the Bryan and Amanda Bickell Foundation to educate people about pit bulls and prevent their abuse. He also understands the importance of teaching children to be “resilient” and his mission statement for his foundation is “Dedicated to creating awareness for the compassionate, loyal, and misunderstood dogs labeled "pit bulls", and working with them to assist abused children. The Bickell’s have launched another program to provide, free of charge, fully trained service dogs to individuals living with MS and other diseases.

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