‘He never let MS take him down’

Army & Navy CEO re­calls watch­ing her fa­ther strug­gle with the de­bil­i­tat­ing dis­ease

The Province - - NEWS - GLENDA LUYMES gluymes@post­media.com twit­ter.com/glen­daluymes

Mul­ti­ple sclero­sis didn’t de­fine Jac­qui Co­hen’s fa­ther.

The CEO of the Army & Navy depart­ment store chain has been re­flect­ing her child­hood mem­o­ries in prepa­ra­tion for an up­com­ing Women Against MS luncheon where she’ll be the key­note speaker.

“It wasn’t who he was,” she said in 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 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 ex­pe­ri­ence too much stress, so the com­pany even­tu­ally was passed on to Jack’s chil­dren.

Nonethe­less, Army & Navy was “in his blood,” said Co­hen, who took over 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. MS 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. An es­ti­mated one 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’s 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.

Army & Navy CEO Jac­qui Co­hen is the key­note speaker for The Women Against MS luncheon on Nov. 23 at the Fair­mont Ho­tel Van­cou­ver. Co­hen’s fa­ther Jack was di­ag­nosed with MS in his early 20s.

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