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'He never let MS take him down:' Jacqui Cohen remembers father's struggle

Glenda Luymes, Postmedia

Army & Navy CEO Jacqui Cohen is keynote speaker for The Women Against MS luncheon on Nov. 23 at the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver.  (PNG file photo)

Army & Navy CEO Jacqui Cohen is keynote speaker for The Women Against MS luncheon on Nov. 23 at the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver. (PNG file photo)

Multiple sclerosis did not define Jacqui Cohen's father.

The Army & Navy CEO has been reflecting on some of her childhood memories in preparation for an upcoming Women Against MS luncheon where she will be the keynote speaker.

"It wasn't who he was," she said in an interview about her father, the late Jack Cohen. "There were things that I hadn't really thought about until someone asked me to do the talk. He never acted like a victim, he never let the MS take him down."

But Cohen remembers her brother admonishing her for making a comment about the way her father was walking when she was 11 or 12.

"I think that was the first time that I had any revelation that something was wrong with my dad," she said.

Diagnosed in his early 20s, her father didn't drive and often used a wheelchair. He was a familiar face at the flagship Army & Navy store in the Downtown Eastside, but his father, company founder Samuel Cohen, felt he shouldn't have too much stress, so the company eventually passed on to Jack's children.

Nonetheless, Army & Navy was "in his blood," said Cohen, who took control of the business in the mid-1990s. "He was the heart and soul of the company."

Jack Cohen died in 1995 after a heart attack, but hardly a week passes when someone doesn't tell his daughter a story about him.

"He was just so loved," she said.

Multiple sclerosis is an autoimmune disease of the central nervous system, including the brain, spinal cord and optic nerve. It causes the breakdown of the nerve coating myelin, leading to inflammation and hindering the travel of nerve impulses.

The disease is unpredictable, said Dr. Karen Lee, VP of research for the MS Society of Canada. Not knowing how it will progress — and how much damage it will do — is one of the hardest issues to deal with for people with the disease.

Although not fatal, as the disease progresses, patients can lose coordination or suffer blindness and paralysis.

Canada has the highest rate of MS in the world, and an estimated 1 in 340 Canadians live with the disease. It's unclear why rates are so high (one theory is that it's related to our distance from the equator and lack of Vitamin D) or why women are three times more likely to suffer from MS than men (leading to questions about the influence of genes or hormones). The cause of MS is also unknown.

Lee said the MS Society supports research in four key areas, including ways to repair what is already damaged, determining the cause of the disease, better diagnosis, and slowing its progression.

"Canada has some of the best clinicians in the world," she said.

New research is focused on epigenetics — how changes in gene function may be triggered or linked to environment — and stem cell treatment. A recent Canadian clinical study showed an antibiotic used for acne can slow the progress of the disease for those who have recently experienced their first symptoms.

"Twenty years ago, there were no treatments for MS. Now we have 14 disease-modifying therapies ... for most people with MS," said Lee.

Women Against MS is a collective of professional women that raises research funds for the MS Society.

A few months ago, shortly after Cohen agreed to speak at the group's luncheon, she received a letter from a person who once worked at GF Strong and had met her father when he was receiving treatment there.

The writer described him as a man who "brought joy" to both staff and clients.

"It's actually an honour to speak about my dad," said Cohen. "He's my role model, and my mentor, and the guiding light in my life."

The Women Against MS luncheon takes place Nov. 23 at the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver.

gluymes@postmedia.com

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