“Even on my worst days with multiple sclerosis, I believe in finding joy where I can”
For Multiple Sclerosis Education and Awareness Month, learn how one woman is tackling MS—and how Johnson & Johnson is helping her and other patients advocate for people living with this nervous system disease.
For Jenna Green, getting diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) was the hardest thing she’s ever faced. But in a way, she realizes, it was also something of a gift.
“It brought me a powerful change in perspective,” says Green, a marketing consultant, social media influencer and MS advocate who lives outside of Boston. “I actually like myself more, because I’ve reprioritized the things that are important to me. I used to be a major multitasker. Now I find more joy in doing a single, focused thing.”
She wasn’t always that way. After graduating college, Green jumped into corporate life, reveling in the “hustle culture,” putting in 80-hour weeks and running a dog-walking business on the side. That began to change at age 28, when a car accident left her in chronic pain—and with some mysterious symptoms.
“About a year or so after the crash, I started feeling tingling and numbness in my limbs,” says Green. “My doctors and I assumed it was from the accident, so I ignored it.”
A few years later, though, she began experiencing vertigo and had difficulty seeing. This time, she couldn’t ignore the symptoms; in her heart, she knew something was amiss. During a doctor’s appointment, the look on the neurologist’s face was her first inkling that something might be seriously wrong. And indeed, after an MRI and a lumbar puncture (a.k.a. spinal tap), Green learned that she had MS.
Shocked doesn’t begin to describe her reaction.
“I was 31, and in the best shape of my life,” she says. She wasn’t even altogether sure what she had just been diagnosed with. “I knew what the letters stood for—I’d done an MS walk the year before—but I knew absolutely nothing about the disease.”
What is Multiple Sclerosis?
Multiple sclerosis is an autoimmune disease, meaning the immune system goes on the attack, in this case targeting the protective outer sheaths of the nerve fibers in the brain and spinal cord. The resulting damage can interrupt the normally smooth flow of signals from the nerves to the brain and back, causing symptoms like vision problems, numbness and tingling—the very symptoms Green experienced—as well as a host of others, including fatigue, motor problems and cognitive issues.
Nearly 1 million people in the U.S. live with MS and the rates are rising, according to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. (Improved diagnostic procedures may be the reason behind the increase, though research suggests that increased exposure to risk factors—like smoking and obesity—may also play a role.) While the majority of people diagnosed with MS are young, white women like Green, men and people of color can also get MS (and may end up with a more severe course of disease).
But multiple sclerosis is not always as debilitating as many people believe. The fact is, two-thirds of people with MS are able to continue walking, though many need a cane or crutches to get around and some rely on a wheelchair or scooter because of weakness, fatigue or balance problems. And although disease complications or other medical conditions can result in a shorter life (the average life expectancy of people with MS is about seven years less than the general population), many of these complications are preventable or manageable.
This positive prognosis is due in large part to the more than 20 disease-modifying therapies available, from injections to once-a-day pills to twice-yearly infusions that, when started early in the course of the illness, can prevent relapses, stave off disability and help people with MS lead normal, healthy lives.
Initially, Green received monthly infusions, but her current treatment calls for twice-yearly infusions. She also takes medication to help with fatigue, a common symptom among people with MS.
“My neurologist was very reassuring about the options,” she says. “He gave me a lot of hope, which I really appreciated.”
Discovering a New Purpose
Green has never been one to sit quietly on the sidelines. But after her diagnosis, she took the especially bold step of opening up about her MS and sharing her symptoms on Instagram, where she now has nearly 8,000 followers. She posts uncommonly candid selfies and snippets from her daily life, along with videos chronicling her work as an MS advocate and Reels that lay bare the challenges—and the hidden joys—of living with a chronic illness.
“Telling my story is hard, because there’s a stigma associated with having conditions like MS,” she says, “but it helps me take my power back.” She also feels strongly that it’s important to let people know that some illnesses can be hard to see. “I share what it’s like to live with an ‘invisible’ condition,” says Green, now 37. “People are always telling me that I don’t look sick, so I use my story to change their perceptions.”
Green also began volunteering with the Greater New England Chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society to do policy work, speaking up on the floor of the Massachusetts State Senate to fight for a number of bills that ensure that people with MS get the treatment they need. As a result, she was recognized by the organization for Emerging Activism. “I’ve always been outspoken, and it’s served me well,” says Green. “My mom likes to joke that I got the award for never shutting up.”
With the help of the HealtheVoices Impact Fund—a grant program from the Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies of Johnson & Johnson that supports innovative efforts by health advocates to serve and assist patient communities—she is now in the process of developing online courses in public speaking for other patient advocates, so they can be more effective.
Because of her MS, Green sometimes has difficulty walking, but she continues to be active. She does low-impact exercise regularly, whether it’s yoga or riding her stationary bike, walks her 6-month-old hound-mix puppy, Callie, several times a day and tries her best to follow a healthy diet. “But I believe in finding joy where I can, which means I won’t give up chocolate or coffee,” she laughs.
Green is learning to ask for help when she needs it, and she even embraces her body’s limitations. “I can’t physically work those 80-hour weeks anymore, and I don’t want to,” she says. Keeping a sense of humor helps her get through the more challenging moments. Case in point: If muscle spasms make it difficult for her to walk, she pulls out a pink cane decorated with glitter. “If I’m going to use a cane, it has to be cute!”
And while Green jokes that she wouldn’t recommend MS to anyone (“If I had to review it, I’d give it zero stars!”), she also believes that MS has made her life better in immeasurable ways. “The friends I’ve made through my social media and my advocacy—they’ve been some of the best people I’ve ever met,” she says. “That’s why, in so many ways, I imagine great things for my future.”