Five years ago the course of my life altered forever when some blood test results ordered by my doctor arrived: the results showed that I definitely had two autoimmune diseases. Specifically, I was producing antibodies that were diagnostic for scleroderma and Sjogren’s disease. I was expecting lupus, so this was kind of a
surprise shock. After a quick trip to Google to establish what type of scleroderma was associated with my positive test results I burst into tears. It was worse, much worse, then I expected.
The scleroderma diagnosis was the problem. Through an unbelievable sequence of serendipitous life events I was more knowledgeable then the average newly diagnosed patient, and I knew that scleroderma was a disease that impacted connective tissue, that it was progressive, disabling, and that there was no cure. This was a life-altering diagnosis, and I was in for a long fight that would last the rest of my life.
You see, I used to work in a rheumatology research lab, and I did research in scleroderma. I was a member of the research team that found the first identified antigen associated with scleroderma. I had visited scleroderma patients in the hospital. Later in my life I taught AP Biology and spent years trying to explain connective tissue to students. It’s a type of tissue that we just never think of, but it is critical in organizing and operating our bodies. Connective tissue makes your skin elastic and strong. It organizes your muscles and makes up your tendons and ligaments. It is a critical layer in your blood vessels, and is part of the essential structure of all of your organs. In scleroderma all or parts of this connective tissue is under attack by your immune system.
You can perhaps see that same thickness on my face, especially on my cheeks. It means that I don’t have wrinkles, but it is also hard to open my mouth, my smile is mostly gone, and I can’t turn my neck well. Crazy, huh.
That is the most ironic aspect of scleroderma: you look pretty darn good, especially if you are a senior citizen like myself, but you actually struggle daily with your illness. For many scleroderma patients their disease just involves the skin, but for others, the disease is more than skin deep.
As it turns out, my skin is the least of my worries. The rare type of scleroderma that I have, systemic sclerosis, also causes scarring of internal organs. The muscles of my stomach and esophagus have lost function. My kidneys are damaged and I have chronic kidney disease (stage 3). My lungs are scarred and my diaphragm isn’t exactly happy any more. Part of my stomach herniated up into my chest this year… whatever was it thinking of?! My tendons are getting calcified due to inflammation and at least one has partially ruptured. My muscles are sore to the touch and I have bruises everywhere. I have nerve damage and trouble controlling my body temperature. It’s hard to walk. Blood vessel damage affects circulation to my hands and feet and I’m starting to develop open sores (ulcers)… There is a long list of diagnosed conditions linked to my scleroderma, but you get the idea. Pretty much I’m a
walking limping train wreck. Well, a knitting train wreck for sure!
There is no cure for systemic sclerosis, but there are treatments that really help a lot. I am taking four different drugs to crush my immune system into submission; it’s a balancing act as I need my white blood cell count to stay high enough to protect me, but low enough to control my symptoms and prevent more damage. I take a drug to shut off the acid produced in my stomach so I won’t accidently inhale it in my sleep since the muscle barrier that usually keeps it in my stomach is now gone. I take a couple more drugs that help control inflammation, and some supplements that help with nerve damage. I’m on oxygen at night. All of these drugs/supplements have made a huge difference for me: my last lung scan showed improvement and my high heart pressure, the most concerning complication that I had, has returned to normal ranges. My kidney damage continues, but it has slowed way down. There is something funky going on with my red blood cell count, but you can’t win them all, right? The main point is that I continue to manage and live independently.
MacKenzie and I last year when I posted this online as part of the “Face of Scleroderma” campaign.
In short, I am a mess. And yet, to the joy of my doctors, I continue to do really well. Okay, I have blue lips, am short of breath, and struggle with tissue damage, but I also continue to thrive compared to other scleroderma patients that they treat. I have had to make many changes to my life, but I have found work-arounds and I still do things that I love. Attitude is all!
Well, knitting, the cat, and the garden are pretty darn essential, too!
So, there it is. What an annoying disease, right? How dare it make you look younger while shortening your life? How dare it do all of this invisible internal damage that makes people think that you are lazy or an attention-seeking hypochondriac when actually you view each day that you are able to leave the house as a personal victory? I’m in several online support groups and there are people dealing with crushing negativity like that. I can see how it can happen; it is so hard to understand something beyond your own experience that is hidden from view.
That’s why there is Scleroderma Awareness Month. It is hard to have a rare disease, especially when it is one that is hard to pronounce (Sclero… what?!). It’s harder still to have one that has no cure and a pretty high fatality rate (hey, with all of the drugs that I’m on my 10 year survival rate is now up to 80%!!). It makes you learn to laugh in the face of terminal complications while forcing you to take every possible precaution to avoid contracting Covid-19. It messes with your head; it gives you power, but it’s also strange and a little lonely.
That’s why we scleroderma patients share our journey with all of you every year so you can get a glimpse of our lives.
I am the Face of Scleroderma.
Footnote: In addition to scleroderma I also have Sjogren’s Disease and fibromyalgia. The symptoms from these three diagnosed conditions overlap and always make things interesting in sorting out my treatment plan. You can learn more about any of these autoimmune disease by checking out the links in my post.