Cindy McCain’s long battle with migraines inspires new campaign

June 27, 2013

Presidential campaigns are bad enough when you’re feeling good. Imagine doing it in pain: Cindy McCain spent the better part of 2008 fighting stabbing, excruciating headaches.

“If you saw me in pictures with sunglasses on, I wasn’t trying to be aloof,” she told us Thursday. “I had a migraine.”

Cindy McCain speaking in New York last week. (Ilya S. Savenok / Getty Images for The Trevor Project)
Cindy McCain speaking in New York last week. (Ilya S. Savenok / Getty Images for The Trevor Project)

The wife of Sen. John McCain teamed up with the American Migraine Foundation for a new campaign to raise awareness, launching the initiative with a series of media appearances Thursday about her personal experience with migraines over the past 20 years.

The headaches started just before she turned 40 — she would first see “ziggy lines” followed by a sharp pain a few minutes later. Like most migraine sufferers, at first McCain wasn’t sure what was wrong: “The first doctor I went to told me to go home and have a glass of wine. It was offensive.” Her migraines lasted from 2-3 days to two weeks; the best option was a dark room and ice on her forehead. It took several years and several doctors to find the right combination of medicines to alleviate her pain. “It took a long time to figure out what works for me,” she said. “I have literally been around the world seeking help.”

Her husband’s 2008 campaign was especially hard. She was fine during the Republican convention, but there were several stretches when she had to stay home. “I learned the best thing for me was to pull off and take days off,” she said. Sometimes she didn’t feel she could skip an event and appeared wearing sunglasses because the bright lights made the pain much worse.

She acknowledged her migraines in some circles then, but found most people didn’t get the severity of the headaches — a problem she calls the “stigma” of migraine sufferers. “It’s a lack of understanding.”  McCain said things are better for her now due to the right mix of meds and age (she’s 59), lessening what she calls a “ruthless disability.”

Now she’s fighting for the 36 million Americans (three times more women than men) who suffer from migraines. She’s calling for more migraine research and federal money — currently funding is about $16 million a year or “one-tenth of one percent of federal medical research money. It’s a drop in the hat.”

Luckily, as you may have heard, she’s got connections on Capitol Hill. McCain said she’s committed to be the migraine spokeswoman for at least two years and plans to testify before Congress and organize a big event here in D.C. to raise awareness. “Nothing is going to change unless we rattle the cages.”

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