When Ashley Rejcek and Barbara Houck mount their bicycles next Saturday in Monmouth for a 103-mile ride to Silver Falls State Park — followed by a 55-miler Sunday — they won't be following doctors' orders.
And it won't be the first such trek for these Rogue Valley moms, who have refused to allow diagnoses of multiple sclerosis define their lives.
Rejcek, 36, and Houck, 54, will ride in the Bike MS Oregon Willamette Valley, one of 100 national MS fundraising rides being held around the country this year. Rejcek did the ride last year, and her friend will join her this time as part of an eight-member team called the Rough Riders.
The ride is just the latest chapter in a story about how two women, both diagnosed as young mothers, have bucked traditional medical advice — suggesting frequent rest and otherwise catering to the chronic, debilitating disease — for a life more active than most.
Both Rejcek and Houck say the disease has taught them about the importance of an active life and educating others about the disease.
MS attacks the central nervous system, including the brain, spinal cord and optic nerve. Symptoms are different for each patient but can range from mild numbness in the limbs accompanied by fatigue to vision loss and paralysis.
Rejcek, 36, of Central Point, was diagnosed four years ago after realizing long bike rides in warm weather were leaving her legs numb.
"I thought it was just a pinched nerve, but it would become worse and worse to the point, after a couple of days, it just wasn't going away," Rejcek recalls.
"I had an annual checkup, and I told my doctor about it. I figured she would send me to physical therapy. When they sent me for an MRI, I expected them to do it on my leg. So I went in for the MRI ... and they did it on my brain. I was totally freaking out, thinking, 'Oh my God, she thinks I have a brain tumor. I'm going to die.' "
Although she didn't receive a death sentence, Rejcek remembers the feeling of uncertainty when she was told she had MS.
"I was standing in the kitchen watching my boys play in the living room, and I remember looking at them and kind of falling to the floor, feeling like, 'What does this mean?' " Rejcek says. "When I began to process what was going on, I decided, OK, I could choose from two different things. I could be mad and sulk about it, or I could choose to fight back."
She chose the latter.
"I knew I wanted to be active in my boys' lives. So the day I was diagnosed and told my husband, we actually did go for a bike ride that day."
Houck, a mother of five and a swim instructor, tells a similar story.
"My daughter is 16, and I was weaning her from breast-feeding when I found out. I had gone to the doctor for strange symptoms two to three years before, and pregnancy and nursing puts MS into complete remission, so it showed up when I weaned her.
"When I was first diagnosed, the doctors' suggestions were to lead a stress-free life, divide up the housework in small increments and get lots of rest. I was like, 'OK, I have three little girls. I'm working part time. You don't nap every day."
After attempting to follow her doctor's orders for a few weeks, Houck found herself feeling more unhealthy than ever.
"I followed along with their guidelines for a while and felt like I was getting weaker and weaker," Houck says. "I felt like I have these children who need me. I have a husband and a life. So I started to walk and ride a bike."
Houck remembers doctors marveling at her progress despite disobeying their rules for rest and stress reduction. In addition to regular workouts, she continued her hobbies of skiing, swimming and biking.
Rejcek and Houck met when Rejcek's two boys took swim lessons from Houck. Nearly as easily as forming a friendship, they set plans in motion to battle their shared disease by participating in the annual MS bike ride.
"She told me she was doing the MS bike ride," Houck says of Rejcek.
"I've never been a road-bike person, but I was intrigued by it. It's much better when you have MS to ride the bike than to run. I watched the ride last year and had talked about doing it one day. So I committed to ride with them."
Ironically, symptoms of MS seem to spur the women to push themselves to levels that the average "healthy" person would find Herculean.
Rejcek says she knew her diagnosis would change her life, but that she could choose whether it would define her.
"I knew when I was diagnosed that I could choose from two paths: being a victim who says, 'Woe is me,' or that I could do something to educate people and stay active for myself and my family."
Houck experienced that same moment of clarity.
"We all have bad days. I might get up on Wednesday or Thursday and say, 'I'm not going to go to aerobics this morning, but I'll still do athletic training twice a week, boot camp twice a week and my cycling class," she says.
"It's really been good to have someone who can relate to what I'm going through. I don't think either of us knows where we would be if we had decided to just sit around and let this happen to us."
Buffy Pollock is a freelance writer living in Medford. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.