It wasn't until Susan Simmons went blind that she found out she had multiple sclerosis.
She was in the dark during two bouts with optic neuritis that caused her to go blind for up to two months at a time. The second time she was left with permanent damage to her left eye.
While she will always have MS and the worry of the optic neuritis returning, Simmons has used swimming and eating a vegan diet to keep her symptoms at bay.
She hasn't cured herself of these ailments, but she has "halted" them says the 47-year-old.
As part of staying healthy and raising awareness, Simmons is participating and helping organize this year's HtO Thetis Lake Swim for MS, July 29. This is the fifth time she has swam in the event.
Her first year she swam the 1.5-kilometre swim loop. Over the years she has swam the the three- and five-kilometre races, sometimes even both in the same year.
"I have run out of lake," Simmons joked, explaining a new challenge she’s incorporating into this year's swim.
The day before the HtO Thetis Lake Swim, Simmons will be in Vancouver, July 28, swimming in The Bay Challenge, a 10-kilometre ocean swim from West Vancouver to Kitsilano Beach. After that race, she’s hopping in the ferry and will swim in the three-kilometre loop at Thetis Lake, July 29.
"I want people with MS to know that they can exercise," Simmons said. "For the longest time I ignored my disease, it wasn't until I turned 40 and it was do or die," said Simmons.
Turning her health around has been life changing. Now, if the swimmer goes one week without exercise, she can feel the tingling sensations in her spine and limbs which let her know that the MS symptoms are coming back.
These are cautionary signs, because Simmons is well aware that, when an attack surfaces, it might mean she could lose her sight again.
"I think the younger you are when you start to become fit, the better quality of life you are going to have," Simmons said. "When you have a disease you need to be even more fit to fight it."
Simmons has also changed her eating habits to help heal her body and has been living a vegan lifestyle for about five years. For the past six months she has been eating a raw vegan diet, consisting of no more than 10 per cent cooked foods. This has helped her boost her health and increase her endurance in the water.
On top of helping her MS symptoms subside, Simmons has also lost 80 pounds in her quest for health.
Curiously, she says she was once told by doctors to not exercise or do anything that stressed her out because it could flare up an MS attack.
When she decided to get healthier she opted for swimming because the cool water helped keep her body temperature down. Heat is also something that can cause MS to act up.
Todd Abercrombie, executive director of the MS Society of Canada's Southern Vancouver Island chapter, has seen a few people living with the disease use exercise to help keep the symptoms at bay.
"There are not too many people at Susan's level who are pushing the boundaries," Abercrombie said. "Her body responds really well to her fitness regime and her over all lifestyle."
While Abercrombie acknowledges there have been no medical studies on the effects of exercise and MS, he said people have seen positive results.
At the Southern Island chapter in Victoria there are two physiotherapists who can help design an exercise plan for anyone living with MS.
Did you know
All of the money raised at the HtO Thetis Lake Swim for MS stays with the Southern Vancouver Island Chapter of MS Society of Canada.
Of that money, 50 per cent will go towards research and 50 per cent will go towards developing fitness programs for people living with MS.
To sign up for the swim, go to Thetislakeswim.wordpress.com