DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del. -- Dawn Fiore has been studying martial arts for 17 years, but it was only last year she went public about her toughest opponent -- multiple sclerosis.
The wife of Maj. Christian Fiore, a Reserve C-17 Globemaster III pilot assigned to the 326th Airlift Squadron here, was diagnosed with MS in 2005 and can still remember what she was doing when she felt her first symptom at age 34.
"I got up from my desk one day, about to go to lunch with some friends," she said. "And, I had this horrifying experience of vertigo; everything was spinning around me, to the point where I was holding on to a wall."
She said that feeling continued through lunch. Six weeks later, the mother of three had to take a leave of absence from work, because the vertigo continued to worsen. After a year of research, tests and mistreatments, Fiore received a spinal tap, which revealed some of the indicators for multiple sclerosis, a degenerative disease of the central nervous system. MS can cause mild to severe neural and muscular impairments.
"(The doctor) saw lesions in my brainstem, and he told me I needed to take a daily injection of MS medication," she said. "I didn't believe or accept the diagnosis until I had three reputable neurologists confirm its accuracy."
That affirmation came in 2005 after a trip to Maryland, where she saw the head of the MS Center for the Johns Hopkins Health System.
"I was horrified at first," she said. "But, I quickly learned the shots weren't as bad as I thought. I'll have to take them for the rest of my life."
She said her immediate family was in disbelief.
"My mother and brothers were terrified and very worried for me," she said. "I think they were thinking of the worst-case scenario. I actually found myself consoling them."
Her husband of 16 years said his initial reaction was fear of the unknown.
"We didn't know where this would lead us or how it would affect our lives," Christian said. "But, then we began the learning process."
His wife, who is a first-degree black belt, said she realized that the disease is not a death sentence. She maintains the highest degree of competency in taekwondo, a martial art which combines combat and self-defense techniques. She also holds a yellow belt in Haidong Gumdo, also known as Korean sword fighting.
Currently, she's a student of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Judo and Mixed Martial Arts at a school in Newark, Del., where she trains under Jeff Mitchell, a first generation black belt of Robson Moura, who Dawn said is considered one of the greatest Brazilian Jiu Jitsu masters of all time.
She said she acknowledges how far she's come from watching her 7-year-old son participate in a six-week trial membership taekwondo class, which is what moved her to enroll herself.
"I was also painfully shy growing up," Fiore added. "The idea of being able to fight with competency and confidence really prompted my passion for learning how to fight."
Last year during an interview by a retailer known for promoting female fighters, Fiore credited practicing martial arts for her multiple sclerosis' lack of progression. Aside from her immediate family and friends, it was the first time she spoke publicly about the disease she has been battling for eight years.
"Accepting the invitation to do the interview and telling the world was a huge step for me," the MMA practitioner said. "People were shocked, especially in my MMA and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu classes. It's hard to believe that I often fight with guys younger than my oldest son; other students in my class had no idea."
Despite MS, Fiore said she leads a normal life and strongly feels it's because of her level of fitness.
"Being active has an extraordinary effect on your mental capacity, your nervous system and your body's ability to regenerate cells," the 134-pound exercise enthusiast said. "And, the endorphin rush promotes your body's sense of well-being, which is often challenged by the daily stressors we all experience."
Fiore said she recognizes her resilient situation is not representative of every MS case.
"As I understand it, statistics show a high percentage of those diagnosed move to the progressive stage, and my heart goes out to those who are suffering," she said.
The full-time graphic designer said she knows her quality of life is a gift and she feels compelled to give back.
"I want to help others," she said. "I feel driven to move in this direction, and I feel very positive about the future."
Fiore has created a workout program called KICKinetics, which blends traditional martial arts, kickboxing and some high-impact jump training.
She said her goals include leading a class at the base fitness center and sharing her story with fitness-related magazines.
"Staying fit and healthy to the level she has taken it to is awe inspiring," her husband said. "Obviously, I wish she wasn't diagnosed with MS, but she's doing a great job holding it at bay. She is the ultimate lesson of perseverance."
No longer silent about her battle with MS, Fiore has her diagnosis displayed on the opening page of her KICKinetics website, where she offers exercise tips, links to MS-related topics and other information about health and well-being, including empowering quotes.
"Hopefully, one day there will be a cure for MS," she said. "But, until that day comes, I'll keep fighting."