When professional cricketer Jemma Barsby asked her team’s doctor to check out her sore shoulder, she thought it’d be down to wear and tear after bowling umpteen overs at training camp.
But the 22-year-old all-rounder, who plays for Queensland Fire and Brisbane Heat, wasn’t prepared for the verdict – the pain, numb fingertips and pins and needles she’d been experiencing were because she had multiple sclerosis (MS).
That was a few years ago, when Jemma was 19, but she still remembers the day clearly: “I walked into the team doctor’s room and the first thing she said was, ‘We’re still gonna be friends right?’ So, I knew then that it wasn’t going to be something good.”
"I was a mess when I found out," she added.
After grappling with the initial shock (“I didn’t actually know what multiple sclerosis was when I first was diagnosed”), Jemma saw a specialist a few days later.
They confirmed she had quite a mild form of the chronic neurological condition, which occurs when the body’s immune system attacks itself and damages protective insulation surrounding nerve fibres in the brain and spinal cord. MS affects 25,600 Aussies – an increase of 4,400 over the past eight years, according to new stats by MS Research Australia – with the average age of diagnosis just 30 years old.
“[At first] I started second-guessing everything I was doing at cricket, because I was like ‘well, is [the MS] going to affect it’ and stuff like that,” says Jemma. “But now, a couple of years on, it hasn’t – touch wood – gotten in the way of [playing cricket]. It’s just now about managing and controlling [the MS] the best I can.”
To do that, she takes medication daily, and takes each day as it comes with her symptoms, which can include pins and needles and feeling lethargic. Has her diagnosis impacted her on the cricket field?
“Not a great deal,” Jemma says. “It’s more just being smarter and trying to keep my body temperature down [heat can trigger symptoms]. Just working out the best ways to keep cool – I’ve been lucky that Arctic Heat supplied me with a few ice vests and neck coolers – and not putting the body under fatigue, which is what leads to more symptoms and possibly an attack. I just listen to my body.”
The diagnosis has given Jemma a whole new perspective on life.
"It has made me not take life for granted because you never know when things will change. It also, showed me how amazing my friends and family are with getting on board with the charity events. I can’t thank them enough for it."
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Sharing her story and working as an ambassador for MS Research Australia is hugely important to Jemma for two reasons.
“I got diagnosed really young, so [I want to say] to those people who are so young that, yes, it is scary at the start but you can get through it. Just keep loving life and enjoying it for what you can,” she explains. “The other side of it, is that a lot of people don’t actually know what multiple sclerosis is, so [I’m] trying to get it out there, making people aware of it, and then hopefully by doing that and raising some funds, they’ll find a cure one day.”
She knows that many people live with MS more severe than hers, so her priorities are living life to the full and not taking things for granted. And, of course, her future in cricket, which looks pretty bright.
“It’s still pretty surreal that women’s sport and women’s cricket is on the up,” says Jemma. “For many years we were just in the background playing the sport we love and now that we’re actually getting recognised, it’s pretty awesome. Hopefully one day in the near future with good consistent performances, [I’d like to] get to that top level and be playing for Australia, but it’s more about firstly performing well and consistently for Queensland Fire and Brisbane Heat. Then, who knows from there?”