May 26, 2010 / 3:53 AM / 10 years ago

O'Jays singer reveals long battle with multiple sclerosis

CANBERRA (Reuters) - Singer Walter Williams from R&B group The O’Jays seemed to have a charmed life, but for nearly three decades he kept a secret from his fans — he was suffering from multiple sclerosis (MS).

Singer Walter Williams from the O’Jays, photographed at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, has decided to go public with his battle with multiple sclerosis after nearly three decades to mark World MS Day on May 26. REUTERS/File/Handout

However to mark World MS Day on May 26, Williams decided it was time to go public with his health issues to let other MS sufferers know that it is possible to lead an active life despite the chronic and often disabling disease.

“I have done well with MS and I want other sufferers to know that they too can lead a normal life,” Williams, 67, told Reuters in a telephone interview.

“Why now? Well, it’s a good time to come out and let people know there is medication for this now that helps a great deal. When I was diagnosed they told me I had 20 years to live and there was no cure but it has all changed.”

Williams is a founding member of the The O’Jays who were pioneers of 1970s soul music with hits like “Love Train,” and “Use Ta Be My Girl.”

He first realized something was wrong while on tour in 1983 and he began getting numb in his feet, legs and torso. At the age of 39 he was diagnosed with MS, the inflammatory autoimmune disease that attacks the central nervous system.

Over 2 million people worldwide have MS which affects about three females to every male with symptoms often starting to show when people are in their early 30s.

“I knew nothing about MS so when I was diagnosed I just freaked out. The doctor told me to get my life in order as I probably only had 20 years to live,” said Williams.

“At first I did the pity party thing and felt sorry for myself, but then I got angry and decided to fight it. I started exercising more to make my body strong and started to eat right and keep a great attitude. I slipped a lot but I got through it.”

Williams, however, was not prepared to go public with his MS. He saw it as a personal matter, with only his family - his wife and four children - and close friends aware he had the disease.

“I just suffered through it. It wasn’t easy but I had to because I didn’t want to stop singing. What aggravated it was heat, so I took cold showers and had a bucket of ice on stage that I could put on my head,” he said.

Williams has continued to perform and tour with the O’Jays for nearly 50 years.

A 2005 inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall Fame, he is also about to release his debut solo album, “Walter Williams - Exposed,” including two original songs he wrote himself.

“I am a living example that you can live with MS with a great attitude, eating properly, exercising, talking to your health care professionals to find out exactly what is best for you as regards treatment,” he said.

“It is not the end of your life. You can live a normal, happy life.”

Editing by Jill Serjeant

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