Since the moment she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis 11 years ago, Cathy Onufrychuk has let little time elapse without working to help find a cure for the disease.
"I’m not the kind to just sit back," said Onufrychuk. "I want to be part of the process, and part of the solution, I hope. I don’t want to put my head in the sand."
A Fairfax Station resident, Onufrychuk, 50, was recognized in December with the National Multiple Sclerosis Society’s Special Recognition Award. The award, which honors an individual, corporation or organization, was presented to Onufrychuk for her contributions to the National Capital Chapter of the Society, which serves those with multiple sclerosis, a disease that ravages the central nervous system and for which no cure currently exists.
"When you first find out you have MS, as with any disease, the beginning is so devastating, to you, to your family," Onufrychuk said. "It changes everything. I just wanted to tell people, ‘This is the worst. It’s only going to get better.’"
That moment came for Onufrychuk when she was 39. Shortly after a car accident that resulted in minimal injuries, she attended a wedding. Walking in high heels was more difficult than usual, so she went to the doctor, thinking something more might be wrong. It turned out she was right, as the accident had exacerbated some pre-existing, yet minor, symptoms of MS.
"I kept stumbling, and I thought, ‘I wonder if I did something in the accident,’" she said.
After months of tests, the diagnosis came back instead as multiple sclerosis, and Onufrychuk and Bill, her husband of 25 years, went to work learning as much as possible concerning the disease, about which, until then, she knew nothing.
"It was a horrendously hellish time in my life," Onufrychuk said. "All of a sudden, you’re happy and healthy, and then, boom, you have MS."
SHORTLY AFTER Onufrychuk was diagnosed, she joined a support group for other newly diagnosed MS patients, through the National Multiple Sclerosis Society (NMSS).
"There are some things she couldn’t talk to me about because, frankly, I wouldn’t understand. It was great to have that kind of support out there that would help her get over the hurdles," said Bill Onufrychuk, a Realtor.
Although Cathy Onufrychuk couldn’t know what direction her life would take, she said the support group got her through.
"At that point, I needed to know everything. It just opened up this world that I knew nothing about. Everything I learned was new to me."
Shortly after she joined her support group, Cathy Onufrychuk signed up to participate in The MS Walk, an annual event that takes place each spring in the greater Washington, D.C., area to raise money for MS research. She and her family — three sons, ages 16-23 — have walked nearly every year since she was diagnosed. In addition, Cathy Onufrychuk has served for the past two years as a coach for the three-day MS Challenge Walk, which also helps raise money for MS research. She estimates raising more than $15,000 in donations this past year through The MS Walk.
"Cathy Onufrychuk is invaluable to the Society and is dedicated to helping the 6,000 people living with multiple sclerosis in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area," said Jeanne Oates Angulo, president of the NMSS National Capital Chapter.
Cathy Onufrychuk said she has been involved with the Society for so many years, it’s hard not to think of those she has worked with a little like family.
"They’ve been a lifeline for me. They’ve helped me in so many ways," she said.
Bill Onufrychuk said that those members of the Society whom the family have met through the 11 years of the disease have helped fill in the gaps.
"What the National MS society has done is let her know at the worst times that there are people out there that care and want to help, and they’ve done that for us numerous times," he said. "It’s not just the help. It’s knowing that you’re not out there alone."
Cathy Onufrychuk said that she still has days where she wonders, "Is it going to be a good leg day or a bad leg day?" She walks outside her house with the aid of a cane or a walker, and when she travels, she uses a wheelchair. Despite these physical problems — and the embarrassment she experienced initially when using them — Cathy Onufrychuk said she tries to deal with it as best she can.
"One of the most frightening things about MS is the uncertainty about it," she said. "My attitude is ‘I’m not going to let this rule my life.’ I do push it, sometimes way too much. Each person has to deal with it the way they can. For me, I just want to push through it, do whatever I need to do."