UCSF Cycling Team 'Menstrual Cycles' Fights Multiple Sclerosis

By Juliana Bunim

UCSF Menstrual Cycles team and physicians

Team Menstrual Cycles, a cycling group consisting of patients, doctors, family and friends that formed to raise money for multiple sclerosis research, show their spirit with their neurologists at UCSF. From left, are Douglas Goodin, MD, Scott Zamvil, MD, PhD, Ari Green, MD, patient Kate Aks, patient Michael Richards, Steven Hauser, MD, Bruce Cree, MD, PhD, patient Laura Pliska, Amy Schwartburg, NP, Jody Steinhauer, MD, and Emmanuelle Waubant, MD, PhD.


When Laura Pliska was first diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) in early 2009, she was initially reluctant to share the very personal information with colleagues in UCSF’s Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences Department where she is the assistant and administrative director of Graduate Medical Education. She also didn’t know how to ride a bike.

Now two-and-a-half years later, she is an active cyclist and committed member of Team Menstrual Cycles, a cycling group founded in the ob-gyn department that participates in Bike MS: Waves to Wine – an annual two-day ride through the wine country with a daily course between 40 and 100 miles to raise money for the National MS Society.

The team was founded by Jody Steinauer, MD, an associate clinical professor in the ob-gyn department, and her husband Michael Richards, following Richard’s MS diagnosis in 2008. “We’re both cyclists and once the dust settled and were more comfortable with the diagnosis we wanted to know what we could do about it,” said Steinauer. “There is so little known about MS yet it is so incredibly common. Once we found this great ride sponsored by the Northern California MS Society, it fell into place.”

Affecting about 400,000 people in the US, MS is a debilitating, chronic autoimmune disease that often strikes people before the age of 40 and is more common in women than in men. In most cases it involves periodic flare-ups when a person’s immune system attacks the myelin sheath that insulates nerve fibers in the brain and spinal cord. Damage to these sheaths can short circuit signals traveling along the nerve fibers, disrupting the normal flow of communication from the brain and causing a range of symptoms – including weakness, sensory disturbance, fatigue, visual impairments and loss of coordination.

Bruce Cree, Michael Richards and Jody Steinauer

Menstrual Cycles team member Michael Richards, center, who was diagnosed with MS, with his wife Jody Steinauer, an associate professor at UCSF and founder of the cycling team, stand with Michael's physician Bruce Cree, an assistant professor of clinical neurology at the UCSF Multiple Sclerosis Center.

In the team’s early days, it was comprised primarily of members of the ob-gyn department who chuckled at the team name. Now as the team continues to grow, it boasts an interdisciplinary cadre of members including UCSF faculty and staff and students from family medicine, internal medicine, neurology, dentistry as well as many past students and residents. Four team members have MS, three of whom are treated at the UCSF MS Center. In total, 65 people are planning to ride as part of Team Menstrual Cycles this year.

“UCSF emphasizes cross-disciplinary opportunities whether through course work or leadership training to develop friendships across boundaries. This team embodies that,” said Steinauer. “All of these people are pulled together from across disciplines and interests, and they all care about MS and are coming together to fight for this cause.”

In the first year the team had about 20 riders, mostly through connections to the ob-gyn department and raised more than $50,000. In the second year the team grew to more than 50 riders and raised more than $92,000, second only to Team Chevron. This year their goal is $100,000.

How to Support the Team

The Bike MS: Waves to Wine

September 17-18, 2011

Visit The Menstrual Cycles fundraising page, here.

A fundraiser with a DJ, live band and silent auction will be on Tuesday, Aug. 23 at 7 p.m. at the Blue Macaw, 2565 Mission St.

Pliska watched the the Menstrual Cycles’ debut ride at Waves to Wine from the sidelines, having not yet shared her diagnosis. “I looked at them and I thought, why am I not riding with them?” she said. “Granted, I didn’t know how to ride a bike.”

A Leader in the MS Field

After several rides with Steinauer she was comfortable, both on a bike and sharing her story. Last year Pliska participated in the 40-mile ride while dealing with severe heat intolerance, a common symptom of MS. Most important was that her daughter saw her finish. “I feel like if I can walk or ride a bike, then I have to do it because some day I might not be able to,” she said.

Pliska has been treated at the UCSF MS Center since her diagnosis where she says she has benefited from a strong team of support and care in addition to her neurologist. “There are all of these other people like nurse practitioners talking about quality of life issues and giving referrals and my favorite radiology tech providing support when I’m terrified of MRIs. It’s more than just a ‘yes you have this disease and take this medicine,’” she said.

Bruce Cree, MD, PhD, a neurologist in the UCSF MS Center, said Pliska’s experience reflects the department’s overarching emphasis on patient care. “We strive to make sure our patients feel that their needs are not only being met, but we’re listening and paying attention to what they’re saying to us,” he said. “There is no other way to learn neurology, but through our patients and we do our best to provide the best possible patient care through supporting and educating our patients, helping them make the best clinical decisions and offering access to clinical trials. We provide the entire package for our patients.”

When the UCSF MS Center moves to Mission Bay in 2012 as part of a new 237,000-square-foot neuroscience center, patient support will expand even further to provide on-site access to services such as physical and occupational therapy and its own infusion treatment center.

“UCSF is the nation’s leading MS Center in respect to [National Institutes of Health] funding and National MS Society funding and has been leading in the development of our understanding of the factors that directly contribute to MS, including risk, genetics and environmental factors,” said Cree. “In terms of developing novel strategies for treating MS, we continue to be a leader in the field.”

The Menstrual Cycles’ fundraising for the National MS Society is more important than ever to Cree and other researchers in his field, given the current economic climate. “The government is in a fiscal crisis which bodes poorly for those of us involved in research, with less funds available through the NIH,” he said. “We have to look to other organizations to keep momentum of research moving forward. The National MS society is a major advocate not just for patient care, but for research and is absolutely essential for helping promote and maintain our research activities in MS.” 

And while the team has grown beyond its roots in UCSF’s ob-gyn department, the team name has stuck. “I say you don’t have to have a uterus or focus your life’s work on taking care of it,” said Steinauer. “You have to care about a uterus or come from one to be on the team.”

As its slogan declares, it’s “The best team. Period.”

Photos by Susan Merrell

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