When Andy McKenna was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis ten years ago he was advised by his neurologist to begin the regime of medication prescribed to control his symptoms.
McKenna, a mountain biker and owner of the mountain bike tour company Go-Where Scotland, wasn’t keen. His doctor, “a lovely man”, gave him a stark warning – take the drugs or face being confined to a wheelchair as the condition, which affects the brain and spinal cord, worsens.
But McKenna, 47, who lives in the Borders, remained defiant. He questioned the long-term efficacy of drug treatments and felt unconvinced by what he saw as flimsy data. He decided that as far as possible he would fight his relapsing remitting MS without the help of pharmaceuticals.
Instead he threw himself into investigating alternative treatments, studying research papers and medical journals to write his own prescription for wellness. So far he says his efforts have been a success.
“I’ve always questioned authority and I encourage everyone to do the same. You’ve got to ask and engage in debate and do your homework,” he said.
Since then he has managed the condition with diet, exercise, stress management and supplements. He says he is “very confident” in his decision not to have conventional treatment.
Now, to get the message out to others in similar situations, McKenna and his wife, Aneela, with a photographer friend, Andy McCandlish, have made a candid film about McKenna’s journey.
The documentary, This Way Up, has been enthusiastically received and was nominated for awards at the Vancouver International Mountain Film Festival and the Kendal Mountain Festival. It has also been noticed by the Scottish Government, which has approached McKenna to discuss potential health promotion projects.
“I’ve been blown away by the reaction. It’s felt a bit like walking into a room with no clothes on – I can’t go back, but if I can give people hope it’s been worth it,” he said.
A growing social media movement behind him has meant that his message has spread and he is regularly approached for advice.
“I feel very strongly that more people know about alternatives. I’m not anti-pharma just for the sake of it. If a new trial showed real progress I would consider it,” he said.
McKenna is keen to point out that his exercise and diet regime does not mean that he doesn’t experience any symptoms of MS. Flare-ups still strike and one bad relapse five years ago forced him to take “industrial strength” doses of steroids or face the loss of his mobility.
He is now emerging from a two-week wobble that saw him have to dial down his daily routine and rest. He said: “It was two weeks of weirdness. My balance was poor and everything was more of an effort. I could almost feel the signals not making it to my muscles. I just had to drop down a gear.”
When these flare-ups strike, McKenna is left with plummeting energy levels, difficulty in balancing, brain fog and vision impairment.
And he is blunt about the impact on his life. “It’s been a pain in the arse,” he said.
Aneela, 44, has fully embraced the lifestyle changes he has adopted but McKenna admits she struggles when she sees her husband laid low. The couple met at Glasgow University and the pair, who both run Go-Where Scotland, have been together for 24 years.
“I know she feels guilty sometimes,” he said. “She’s watching her best friend and riding partner lose his grip. Plus she has wants and needs herself and now has to face an alternative future too.”
Honesty has been the fulcrum of their relationship since McKenna’s diagnosis: “MS forces you to think deeply and figure out what’s important to you. It’s time to be more open.”
When he is well McKenna aims to take to the hills and ride for 30 minutes every day, and up to five hours with Aneela on the weekends. He chronicles his adventures on Instagram where in posts and videos he addresses any issues he might be facing or just expresses a general delight in life.
McKenna considers what, if anything, MS has gifted to him: “It has improved our lives more than we could have anticipated. I’m probably more healthy now than I’ve ever been and have a fantastic quality of life.”
For more information and to find out where you can watch This Way Up visit www.stokedonms.org.uk