Published: 06:00, 08 December 2020
| Updated: 14:43, 08 December 2020
A PHD student who grew up in Orpington is due to start treatment for multiple sclerosis (MS) today, after suffering with undiagnosed symptoms for more than a decade.
Laura Chegwidden was told by doctors in September of this year that she had the lifelong condition - which turned her life upside down.
The PHD candidate is having to balance her research with the debilitating illness
Deep into her cancer postgraduate studies in Birmingham at the time, Laura was forced to move back in with her parents, who now live in Bexhill, for them to take on the role of being her full time carers.
The 29-year-old said: "Coming back home to my parents is nice but it's also strange because you don't really want your parents to have to take on the carer's role when you're 29.
"You kind of want to be independent and do your own things and go out with friends if you want to, but at the moment I'm not able to do that because I haven't left the house for about a year-and-a-half.
"You feel quite vulnerable, and if I do pass out then there's a risk I might injure myself, so I don't feel comfortable going out alone at all, so usually one of my family members will be with me, or a friend."
The consequences of the condition means Laura moves around mostly in a wheelchair, and has hardly gone outside in the past few months because of the additional complications getting coronavirus would have on her body.
People diagnosed with MS can suffer with a wide range of problems, and Laura's have significantly changed the way she lives her life.
The 29-year-old said: "Whenever I stand up my heart rate will rocket up to about 200 beats per minute, which is fast, so that doesn't help with the fatigue side of things.
"My blood pressure can drop as well - orthostatic intolerance - which can then lead me to fainting which is a nightmare and you then end up hurting yourself."
Laura also suffers with her balance being off, as well as having to deal with bladder and bowel issues.
'You feel quite vulnerable, and if I do pass out then there's a risk I might injure myself...'
The PHD student is among a fifth of those in the UK diagnosed with the illness who are in their 20s.
According to the MS Society, there are 130,000 people living with MS in the UK, with more than 1,250 people under 30 who have been diagnosed in the last year alone.
But despite countless medical appointments and examinations since the age of 18, Laura struggled to get to the bottom of the various issues she had been suffering with.
She said: "I've been having symptoms on and off for about 11 years now but nobody had ever connected the dots, I was just put down to this weird case where I'd have all these different medical conditions that were all diagnosed individually."
Some doctors just though it was all in my head, like I was making things up which was difficult.
Laura's condition has now been diagnosed as relapse remitting MS, where symptoms can disappear before reappearing later on, often in different parts of the body.
But the academic is not letting the condition hold her back from her involved and complex studies on cancer.
She said: "It's been difficult over the years with medical issues going on as well as trying to do my degrees, but I'm the kind of person who doesn't like to give up easily.
"It's scary not knowing what your future will hold or how much the MS might hold you back, I've never really thought in my career that I'd have to consider having a chronic illness that might potentially impact on my career, but I'm kind of the person who just puts their head down and gets on with it."
Laura's treatment begins today in the hopes of stopping the symptoms from progressing, but only has a success rate of around 30%.
Light at the end of the tunnel
Although the diagnosis of MS can be life-changing, there is hope that the illness could one day be a distant memory.
Through ground breaking research the MS Society believe they could be close to eradicating the debilitating condition for good.
Dr Katie Howe, research and communications manager for the society, said: "We actually believe that we can stop MS.
"By 2025 we want to be in the final stages of testing a range of treatments so that nobody has to worry about their condition getting worse."
The 34-year-old added: "MS is different for everyone - it can be relentless, it can be painful, it can be disabling, and there are lots of reasons why people are being diagnosed earlier, including better detection methods and greater understanding of the condition.
'We actually believe that we can stop MS...'
"But it's actually a really hopeful time right now if you're diagnosed with MS, because we believe that we're at this critical point and that we can stop MS."
The society hopes to raise £100 million with their Stop MS Appeal, to help reach their goal of finding treatments for everyone with MS.
What is MS?
Multiple sclerosis is a condition that affects your brain and spinal cord.
A substance called myelin protects the nerve fibres in the central nervous system, which helps messages travel between the brain and the rest of the body.
Immune systems affected by MS mistake myelin for a foreign body and attacks it.
This then damages the myelin and strips it off the nerve fibres, leaving scars known as lesions or plaques.