Read the ongoing saga — from diagnosis to stem cell treatments — of a beloved Ohio radio DJ with multiple sclerosis.
Kym Sellers likes to call it “divine intervention.”
Early in 2014, when a friend of hers suggested that she look into getting stem cell treatments for her multiple sclerosis (MS), Sellers — a popular Cleveland radio personality known for her show The Quiet Storm on 93.1 WZAK, which ran for 21 years — didn’t know how to pursue the idea. After all, stem cell treatments for MS are still considered experimental and aren’t FDA-approved.
But her friend insisted that she seriously consider the treatment, saying she had an unexplained feeling it would be right for her. So Sellers decided she’d explore her options, sometime soon.
She didn’t have to. A few days later, she got a phone call from a local reporter she’d gotten to know over the years. The reporter had learned of a doctor who was recruiting people with MS for stem cell treatments, and who thought Sellers — one of the most prominent Clevelanders with multiple sclerosis — might be a good candidate.
A few days later, Sellers went to the doctor’s office, where she learned about the treatment — which involves extracting fat tissue through liposuction, isolating stem cells from the fat, and infusing the cells back into the bloodstream by IV.
“I said, ‘What type of timeframe are we working with?’” says Sellers of her initial appointment. “And he says, ‘I have you on the schedule for Tuesday.’”
Even though she hadn’t expected to start the treatment so soon, Sellers jumped at the opportunity. She was at a point in her journey with MS where she was willing to take a risk to feel better.
Building a Career and Family
In 1992, when she was 25, Sellers was running in a road race with a friend when she noticed that her legs were getting tired in an unusual way. At first she thought she might just need to get in better shape, but as the problem continued with more exercise, it became clear that something else was wrong.
“If I were on the elliptical for maybe a half-hour,” she says, “my legs would be kind of jelly-like.” Her mother, a healthcare worker, suggested that she see a neurologist. A diagnosis of multiple sclerosis came right away.
At first, Sellers’s only symptoms were related to exercise or unusual physical exertion, and even then, she felt normal within 5 to 10 minutes of stopping the activity. “So I kind of figured that’s how life would be,” she notes.
A native of Akron, Ohio, Sellers began working at Cleveland’s 93.1 WZAK in 1994. She soon became a local fixture, known for her soothing voice and friendly, chatty demeanor with callers on her radio show, which featured relaxing R&B music. Her connection with listeners was so strong that it earned her the nickname of “Cleveland’s girlfriend.”
During this time in her life, Sellers got married and gave birth to a daughter, her first of four. But while becoming a mother brought her great joy, it also worsened her MS. After her first childbirth, says Sellers, “My legs stayed numb for a week” once her epidural wore off. After each following pregnancy, walking became more difficult, and her arms became spastic and tight.
Having these symptoms made motherhood difficult at times. “When they were little, I wasn’t able to keep up with them as much” as other people, Sellers says. But she was fortunate to have the support of many family members and friends — support that continues to this day. “I’ve been blessed,” she says, “to have a lot of awesome help.”
Slowed But Not Stopped by MS
About seven years ago, when her oldest daughter was about 10 years old, Sellers stopped walking. Adjusting to this new reality was difficult, she remembers.
“I have always been that girl,” says Sellers, “who didn’t need her mother to fill out applications. I didn’t need her to go buy me X, Y, and Z.” Instead, Sellers worked summer jobs from a young age and saved her own money. Given her long history of independence, losing it has been especially hard. “Not being able to drive,” she says, “not being able to run, walk through the neighborhood — those are things that I would love to do, that I become a little bit emotional about.”
But despite her mobility challenges and the assistance she requires, Sellers still shows up where it matters most. “All they want to know is, will I be at their games?” she says of her daughters, who all play basketball competitively. “It doesn’t matter that I don’t feel good today. They just want me.”
Striking a balance between leaning on her daughters for help, and not wanting to burden them too much with her disease, remains a challenge for Sellers. “I’ve tried not to make me their issue. I didn’t want them to lose their childhood,” she says. Right now, she thinks they’ve struck a good balance — with her daughters helping her regularly, but not in ways that interfere with their activities or social life.
Most important of all to her, Sellers is still able to participate in her daughters’ lives. Despite her limitations, “I’m able to watch and see them grow,” she says.
New Treatment, New Hope
In February 2014, Sellers received her first stem cell treatment. It was a process that took about three hours.
There are two main kinds of experimental stem cell treatments for MS. One involves hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs), which are extracted from a person’s blood or bone marrow and saved up over time. During a hospital stay, that person’s immune system is then nearly completely destroyed using drugs. The saved stem cells are infused over a period of weeks to help rebuild the immune system, essentially “rebooting” it. In many cases, this treatment seems to completely stop the progression of MS.
A treatment with mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs), on the other hand, takes only a few hours and is far less risky (since during an HSC treatment, the person essentially has no immune system for a period). MSCs are extracted from fat tissue removed through liposuction, after which they’re delivered into the bloodstream by IV. The stem cells support areas of the body where the immune system is weak or malfunctioning, including the myelin sheath of nerves affected by MS. Improvements from this treatment tend to be more subtle than those from HSC treatments.
Since her first treatment in 2014, Sellers has received two additional treatments each year, for a total of seven stem cell treatments. When people ask her whether her therapy worked, “What I like to say is, it’s working,” she says. After the first treatment, her voice — which was sounding rough and weak — cleared up quickly. Other changes were more subtle, but still noticeable — in fact, her physical therapist and personal trainer both noticed improvements in her strength and mobility right away.
“It’s a slow process,” says Sellers. “My arms are getting lighter, my legs are getting lighter. I’m still not able to stand completely and take a step, but I do feel stronger throughout my body.”
In addition to her stem cell treatments, Sellers takes estrogen as hormone replacement therapy (HRT). She’s noticed that her stiffness gets worse when her estrogen levels aren’t correct. These are currently her only medical treatments for MS, having tried interferon therapy in the past without success.
But she also gets plenty of exercise and physical therapy. “If you don’t keep working it, you just slowly lose control,” she says. Even when she needs her trainer to assist her in doing a certain exercise or movement, she feels better when she does a wide range of activities.
Inspiring Others and Educating About MS
For years after her diagnosis of MS, Sellers didn’t tell many people about her condition. Whenever her walking was affected, she’d tell coworkers she had pulled a muscle, or suffered some other sports-related injury.
But when rumors began to swirl that her walking issues were caused by a drinking problem, “I thought, maybe it’s time for me to come clean and tell the story,” she says. She did so on her radio show, as well as on local TV news programs. Over the years, Cleveland’s Fox 8, in particular, has frequently followed her struggles and her progress, including the stem cell treatments.
“People have been absolutely wonderful,” Sellers says, about her MS announcement and updates. Although her radio show ended in October 2015, Sellers remains in the public eye through the periodic Fox 8 segments about her. She’s also set to begin hosting her own segments for the channel in 2017, focusing on human interest stories that, she says, “tug at the heart.”
Another project that Sellers is passionate about is The Kym Sellers Foundation, which she founded in 2000 to help educate people in the Greater Cleveland area about MS. Since its formation, the foundation has held two seminars a year that are free and open to the public, each covering a topic relevant to MS — including legal rights, nutrition, and treatments.
Sellers also wants the seminars to give people with MS in the Cleveland area a sense of community — “let them know why my story could be their story,” she says. “I’m just there to give people a little glimmer of hope that they, too, can keep on fighting.”
Sellers isn’t shy about the challenges of living with MS. “It’s not a disease for the weak,” she says. “You’ve got to be strong to deal with this on a day-to-day basis.” Still, she’s optimistic about the future, including the potential for new treatments or even a cure.
“The work that we do here today could help or save you or your loved one tomorrow,” she says. “With that thought in mind, I want people to have hope.”