The Scleroderma Chronicles: Invisible (Star) Wars

I’m a big fan of the movie Star Wars. Seriously. I remember the first time that I saw this movie; we stood in line for hours, laughed at the droids, were amazed by the special effects, wished we had the Force, held our breath as the tension at the end of the movie mounted, and cheered wildly when the Death Star blew up. Over the next year we watched the movie 13 times in the theater, memorized the sound tract, and to this day I hear snippets of dialogue echoing in my mind…

Star WarsLike this line said by the droid C-3PO to his buddy R2-D2 as they escaped from their badly damaged and captured ship to carry out a secret mission as directed by Princess Leia:  “That’s funny, the damage doesn’t look that bad from out here.”

Author
Bundled up in wool and staying warm. You can’t see my stage 3 kidney disease, interstitial lung disease, struggling gastric and intestinal organs, burning muscles, painful joints, brain fog, and my truly astonishing fatigue.

That’s me. Badly damaged on the inside, not that bad on the outside.  The curse of all people who have an invisible illness. People often say, when they learn about my illness, something along the lines of… “Well, you look great!” It’s nice to hear, but it also suggests that I’m not really that sick.  I can’t help but feel that they think that I am an attention-seeking hypochondriac. Sigh.

Raynaud's
You have to admit, the visible symptoms are really subtle. It can be as little as lost circulation in a finger: Raynaud’s phenomenon. What can’t be seen is that I’m also experiencing circulation loss in my lungs, kidneys, brain and other organs.
Edema on arm.
A poor dietary decision can hit me hard: dizziness, muscle pain and edema in my arms. I ate cheese enchiladas at my favorite restaurant this time.

It is amazing, really. How can the damage not look that bad from out here? I struggle for air. I often lack the energy to get through basic tasks. Pain stalks me waiting for a poor decision on my part that will give it an opening.  An incoming weather front pushes me over a cliff. Holidays can be the worst as I struggle to manage my energy resources, diet and exposure to cold. I can get through the Christmas dinner okay, but the next two days are spent in bed sleeping myself back to functionality.

And yet, I’m starting the New Year feeling pretty darn chipper, well… as chipper as you can after a 12 hour nap and a strong latte to launch myself into motion. See, I can get back to functionality. I’m on great drugs and I have wonderful doctors. My latest round of medical testing shows that I am tolerating my drugs well, and my disease progression has virtually ground to a halt. I am making some gains. I spend a lot of time managing my symptoms and hoarding energy resources, but I am not getting worse. Some really scary words on my chart have gone away over the last year: chronic respiratory failure, pulmonary arterial hypertension, and severe kidney disease are no longer there. I have wonderful friends and supportive family members. I am still independent and can get out to social events.

MacKenzie the cat.
I have the world’s bossiest cat to tend to me…
Rose.
and my indoor roses are blooming.

The rose bush is also struggling and covered with mildew. Sigh. It’s like a metaphor for my life. Bloom where you can, and pretend that all this other damage isn’t happening over there… Jedi mind tricks can be useful when dealing with implacable enemies like scleroderma and mildew.

Use the Force! I hear in my mind. If you know the movie Star Wars and the other movies in the series, it is a tale of heroic underdogs battling against great and evil foes, desperate times, hope and change.

I don’t have a light saber, but I have knitting needles.

I don’t have the Force (an invisible energy field created by all living things), but I have an online and real network of people and other living things that connect to me and support me. I have science and time on my side: new drugs are on the way and some of them are in new rounds of clinical trials. Remember the movie poster? A New Hope. Yep. Every year brings me a new edition of hope.

My illness is mostly invisible. The battle is real. Bring it on, 2019, I am ready for you!

Cat

Footnote: Perhaps you are wondering… whatever does she have? I was diagnosed with Limited Systemic Sclerosis and Sjogren’s Syndrome in 2014, and those two conditions carry with them a host of complicating conditions such as Raynaud’s, colitis, gastroparesis, interstitial lung disease, kidney disease, heart disease, oh my lord, and a partridge in a pear tree. In 2016 I was referred to palliative care and told to make final plans; Myfortic (CellCept) saved the day and I was discharged from palliative care a few months later. In 2018 my rheumatologist added fibromyalgia to the list and there is an ongoing discussion about dermatomyositis. Why do these autoimmune diseases throw parties and invite all of their friends?  It’s like the bar at Mos Eisley Spaceport with all the strange aliens.  As Obi-Wan tells Luke, “You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. We must be cautious.” I don’t have a blaster, but I think that in this case the drug Myfortic will do the job!

Science and the Scleroderma Girl: The Only Point in Common

Two years ago I was getting bounced around between several doctors as they tried to figure out why I was struggling to breath. The rheumatologist felt I should see a cardiologist. The pulmonologist felt that I needed to be treated by the rheumatologist. The internist insisted that the pulmonologist needed to intervene. The rheumatologist was very reluctant to give me an inhaler even though he had ordered the PFT that indicated that I needed one.

I was getting close to pulling out my hair! Literally, there were too many cooks in the kitchen and no one could manage to get the meal assembled. I was the cake in the oven, and I had just collapsed into an ugly, doughy mess…

“Look”, said the rheumatologist in the middle of this, “you are the only point in common between all of your doctors. Each one of us sees just one slice of your health, but you are the one getting all the info…” In effect, she was telling me to take charge of my health. Uh…

Spock: He is intelligent, but not experienced. His pattern indicates two-dimensional thinking… (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn)

Seriously? I’m expected to organize this circus? I have skills, but to suggest that I should run this show is ludicrous…

Except, from a certain viewpoint, I am running the show; I AM the show. I have a serious illness, and I have a team of doctors to address my symptoms and halt my disease’s progression. I need to be proactive and ensure that I get the treatment that I need. Clearly, I needed help to sort through the conflicting advice and to assign priorities to the elements of my treatment plan.

There needed to be one doctor who knew me well, understood the big picture, who could also cut through the red tape and facilitate immediate medical response from the most appropriate provider if needed.

I made an appointment with my internist, who was also my primary care physician, and laid out the problem. I told her that I needed someone to review all the notes and test results from the other doctors on a regular basis to understand the big picture. I shared with her my concerns about differing information from the other physicians: I needed an expert to work with me to coordinate my treatment plan. There needed to be a doctor who saw me on a regular basis, who knew me and my situation, who could take a “snapshot” of my health situation, and who could see me almost immediately if I got into trouble. One of the problems that I struggle with is knowing which doctor to call when I develop problems; with this arrangement I have a designated first contact who will decide which specialist needs to be contacted next.

We agreed that I should come in every three months for the medical review and snapshot of my current status.

Everything changed for me. My internist reads everything from the other doctors at these appointments, and she answers questions that I have in a cross-disciplinary way that the other specialists can’t. It’s more like a consultation than the usual medical appointment. She looks to see what has been missed by the other doctors, and facilitates communication between the doctors. She has sent me for immediate testing, cut through the red tape so I could get oxygen when I needed it, and makes sure I get the complete text of all testing reports.

I make an appointment with her before I see the specialists to plan for those appointments, and then I see her afterwards to debrief on what happened and to see if anything was missed. When I go to my appointments with the specialists I can talk about test results, my prescriptions, and the symptoms that are concerning me; I have become an informed patient. Because of this I am a better conduit of information between the doctors, and the coordination of care and smooth communication has greatly increased. My doctors and I are now collaborative partners working to manage my disease.

From a collection of 6 doctors I now have a smoothly coordinated team to jointly treat my illness. For me, this is a huge difference! I’m now in much better shape, and I feel more in control of what is happening. I AM the only point in common, so I had to activate my hidden superpower of facilitation and coordination to make it work.

And knit. I had to knit a lot.

Have a good weekend everyone.

Scleroderma Awareness Month: Hard Word. Harder Disease.

Every year I get a note from the Scleroderma Foundation about Scleroderma Awareness Month. Take the pledge! Tell at least one person about scleroderma! Coerce your friends into joining the walk for the cure later this month.

Piece of cake. I can do that. Hand on to your phones, because here we go.

Scleroderma is a crazy sounding word, isn’t it. It is actually descriptive of the most obvious symptom of the disease:  based on Greek words, “sclero” means hard and “derma” means skin. Hard skin. My skin is interesting to say the least. Hard, shiny, speckled with white patches of scaring, tight across my cheekbones and knuckles: kind of typical for the disease.

“It’s just your skin”, I was told by my ex not long after my diagnosis. “It’s not a big deal, right?”

As it turns out, this actually is a big deal. The tissue under attack by the immune system is the connective layer just under the skin. You know, the layer of the skin that produces the collagen that gives skin its stretchiness and cohesiveness. Imagine what would happen if this tissue grew really thick, stiff, and then tightened down so badly that blood circulation was cut off and it became impossible to move correctly at the joints. The skin around your mouth can be too tight for you to open wide at the dentist, you can’t bend over to tie your shoes, and forget turning your neck. If your skin won’t stretch, you are in a fix for sure! Finger tip ulcers are a constant worry, and physical therapy to maintain flexibility becomes part of the daily routine. Or you can knit. Knitting is good for blood circulation and flexibility. 🙂

Best advice ever for the scleroderma girl.

This same connective tissue is also found throughout the intestinal tract, and in many other organs of the body. The lining of blood vessels also is impacted, and there is a lot of smooth muscle (like the muscles that work in your stomach) damage.  Some people with scleroderma will only experience it in their skin, but others will have damage occurring in organ systems of their body. None of this is nice; some people will lose the function of their hands, while others suffer kidney, heart, and lung damage. Intestinal tract damage is almost universal, and some of these complications can be severe. Check out this neat interactive chart of symptoms.

So, what causes scleroderma? The actual answer is… nobody knows. It is an autoimmune disease that is triggered by unknown causes, has no cure, and if left untreated in the systemic form is fatal 50% of the time. Right now there is no drug to directly treat the disease, but there are treatments to help with symptoms and to modify the course of the disease by impairing the immune system. With these drugs survival rates are way up. Seriously, hug the next scientist you come across. I personally plan to throw a bar-b-que for the next one I get my hands on.

As it turns out, this year the month of June arrives at a pivotal time in my scleroderma life. There is so much going on, and so much that I’m thinking about, that I’m gearing up to post a whole series of articles about the complexities of navigating through the world as a chronically ill patient. Seriously. I could write a blog post for each day of the month. My little notebook that I jot ideas for posts in is filling up quickly.

I need a catchy title for the series. It will be about science, biology, medical decisions, and navigating through a world of alternative medicine and treatments. You know, like fake news, but instead we are dealing with fake medicine.

Whatever is a scleroderma girl to do?

Stay tuned. I’m seriously gearing up for this. June is going to be a great month.

Hey, if you want to walk with me for a scleroderma cure, just let me know. 🙂

The Scleroderma Chronicles: Rare Disease Day 2018

It seems like I just wrote a “rare disease day” post just yesterday, but it has been a whole year already. Actually, I think that I was really lazy last year and just re-posted the previous year’s blog post. Anyway, tomorrow (February 28th) is World Rare Disease Day. This year the motto is “Show Your Rare”, which is a little scary as it sounds vaguely like how I might order my steak, but I’m game. I’m rare, and here is my story.

First things first. Let’s talk about rare diseases. Here in the United States, a rare disease (also known as an orphan disease) is one that affects fewer than 200,000 people in the US. The bad news is that there are a lot of rare diseases; over 6,000 different diseases that impact about 25 million people just here in the US. Many of these are genetic in nature, and they tend to be chronic (more about that later).

I joined the rare disease club the day that my systemic sclerosis (a form of scleroderma) was diagnosed. With only about 100,000 cases in the US, we are definitely rare. Here’s the scoop on my disease: it is progressive, disabling, chronic, and possibly fatal. It shares some characteristics with cancer cells. It is also mostly invisible to other people, and people have no frame of reference to understand an illness that they have never heard of before, so they tend to be dismissive.

Scleroderma hand
One of the most obvious features of my condition is my thick skin. My legs and lower arms are literally hard, and here on my hand you can see that the skin folds kind of strangely. My skin is thick with scar tissue that has built up in response to inflammation set off by my immune system’s attack on normally healthy tissue.
Finger
You can really see it on this finger. My finger looks pale since the scaring is so bad it cuts off circulation when I hold it out straight. There is a silver lining to this: I will never have “old lady” hands.

My hands look strange, but I am doing really well all things considered. I have good circulation and flexibility which my doctors think is due to knitting. “Knit as much as you can!” was the recommendation. See, every setback in life has a silver lining.

What can’t be seen is my astonishing fatigue, muscle/joint pain, and brain fog. So much brain fog. I’m also accumulating organ damage as the months pass by. Digestive system damage, kidney damage, lung damage, and blood vessel damage that is slowly increasing the pressure in my heart.

Scleroderma face
All that redness on my face is due to blood vessel damage, and you can see the thick skin around my eye. Collagen build-up has given me chipmunk cheeks. Special. Thank heavens for red-cancelling make-up.

It’s like a scene from the movie, The Terminator. You know… if you substitute this line about the Terminator from the movie with the word scleroderma it would be… [Scleroderma] can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear! And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead!

Mortality rates are down for my form of the disease due to new drug interventions. The other good news is that it is moving really slowly in my case. I think that I have had this disease for decades, and only now, in my 60s, is it catching up with me. I’m on the best drugs available, I love my doctors, and they have slowed the disease progression down tremendously over the last couple of years.

But I’m still dealing with a serious chronic illness, as are many other people with rare diseases. For me, when trying to explain my illness to others, it is the concept of “chronic” that causes the most trouble. People tell me to get more sunshine, more exercise, better food, use essential oils, whatever, so that I can get better. That’s the way it is for many health conditions, but not for a chronic illness.

There is no better, I tell them. Only this. Nope. They will insist that I can get better if I just try, and take it as defeatism when I calmly explain that some of this damage can’t be reversed. It is possible to get better without getting well, they will say. You look so great! It’s like it’s a personal affront that I can’t just be cured. If they haven’t seen me for a few months they will express surprise that “this is still going on”.

It is the concept of “chronic” that is the problem. To accept that you are sick is not weakness or “giving up”. It is coming to terms with the nature of your enemy.

So here is my Rare Disease Day request for anyone who has managed to read all of this. Accept chronic. Ask the person you are talking to about how they are doing. Ask what their doctors are telling them. Accept that they are in a situation that they can’t escape from. Don’t shy away from the fight if you care about that person.

If you know the movie “The Terminator“, you know that the heroine of the tale, Sarah Connor, was a hell of a fighter. She never, ever gave up, and in the end she got the best of the monster trying to do her in.

I’m channeling Sarah Connor.

The View from Here: One Year of Scleroderma

It’s been a year since I was first diagnosed with scleroderma. Actually, it has been decided that I have the form of scleroderma called limited systemic sclerosis (the disease formerly known as CREST). Sounds kind of fraught, huh. That’s because it is; no matter what I think I know about my condition this week, by next week things will probably change. It has been quite a journey this year and now that all the dust has settled from the latest rounds of medical tests I wanted to share my thoughts.

There is no question that the first months after my diagnosis were filled with waves of horror and grief. At first I was just stunned to discover that I might lose the use of my hands. Then it dawned on me that my ability to live independently might become problematic; I needed to make plans to activate a support system for myself at some time in the future. Eventually I found out about the fatal complications and the high mortality rate. Well, shoot. During this time I became a driven knitter: endless pairs of fingerless mitts rolled off my needles.

CARD
My sister, who has a somewhat warped sense of humor, sent me this card about the time that I learned about my risk for pulmonary hypertension, an often fatal complication of limited systemic sclerosis.

Yet, it has been a year and I am still here. I sailed through the medical tests and none of the frightening medical complications have manifested themselves. My lungs and heart are fine (huge woohoo!!). My GI tract hasn’t gotten worse. My hands are very swollen and the skin is getting hard (one of the hallmarks of scleroderma is hard skin that forms due to lots of collagen deposition and scarring; my arms and legs are getting hard too), but they work just fine and are actually much better than they should be. My rheumatologist has advised me to knit as much as possible; what a hardship!  Other symptoms have improved and I have transitioned onto a battery of drugs that have good track records for improving the quality of life and increasing survival rates in patients with my condition.

So, what have I learned this year? Here is my reflective collection of observations as I look back from the one-year viewpoint:

  • People are more important then things. Period.
  • ..but they just don’t get chronic conditions and they tend to underestimate the seriousness of conditions that they can’t directly observe. In general people on crutches or using oxygen activate concern, but if you have flaming gastritis, the dizzy wobblies, and your muscles are on strike it’s easy for them to adopt a dismissive attitude. <sigh>
  • Medical personnel can be appallingly insensitive. Last week the technician doing my lung scan mentioned that I had a lot of doctors because my disease was really rare; it was important that the doctors get to learn as much from me as possible. Good lord, I wondered. Maybe she was raised by wolves…
  • As a corollary of the above observation, I have also discovered that I can’t assume that the medical personnel that I come in contact with actually know about my condition. One nurse thought that “systemic sclerosis” was “multiple sclerosis”. A doctor gave me a pep talk about how other conditions were worse because some of those patients actually can die from their disease. (“Did you want to hit him?” asked my rheumatologist…) One thing I can count on, however, is that they will put me into some scary machine to look for a possible blood clot. What is up with all the blood clot hunts?
  • MedAlert ID
    I do have some wonderful doctors! Because of crazy interactions with random medical people I have decided that it is best to be proactive: last month I put this tag onto my keys and the little card in my wallet has the business cards of my internist and rheumatologist stapled to it. 
  • There are few things as empowering as discovering that you won’t live forever. Why sweat the small stuff when you are facing down the long odds? My drugs have a small chance of a fatal brain infection? Whatever. Hand them over, Sparky, I am on board! I never worry about money (bad when I’m in a yarn store) or running out of gas, and I am taking more risks than I was comfortable with before. I mean, what is the worst thing that can happen? This week I figured out how to identify all of the electrical circuits of the house and rewired and installed a new doorbell. I didn’t worry (more than once) about getting knocked on my butt by an electrical mishap. Ha! In my younger days I hated to even change light bulbs…
  • Stay Calm and Carry Yarn
    Elizabeth Zimmerman was right. “Knit on with confidence and hope, through all crises.” is a motto that I can live with.
  • No, I won’t be skydiving! I’m not that risk-seeking. 🙂
  • It is so much easier to be happy than sad. Plant flowers. Read books. Knit like the wind! Chase bees. Go to lunch with friends (and get dessert!). Watch meteor showers and be sure to catch the Super Blood Moon. Talk to strangers in bookstores and coffee shops. Be kind whenever you can. Never miss an opportunity to take a picture of a great sunset (or a cat). It is really, really easy to be happy, even when you’re in a crazy machine that is looking for blood clots. 🙂

I finally went to my first scleroderma support group meeting a couple of months ago. I’d never met another person with scleroderma; it was a little extreme but good. Like me, they all suffer from cold hands. Unlike me, most of them also talked about the struggle to manage pain in their hands, and I could see that several of them had limited use of their hands because the skin was so tight. Remember all of those fingerless mitts I knitted during the sad times? I think that I have found a home for them.

 

 

 

Life is Uncertain, Knit Fast!!

Yesterday was Thanksgiving. A time to be thankful for the good things in life. I have always thankful for good health in the past. This year, for the first time, that wasn’t true.

There can be no doubt about it. Things hadn’t been quite right for a long time. My joints hurt. I had a rash on my face. I sometimes had trouble swallowing, and acid reflux was occurring on a regular basis. My hands were swollen and I had trouble moving my fingers. Fatigue was my constant companion. If my hands got cold my fingers turned white or purple, a condition called Reynaud’s. Sometimes it hurt to breathe. I kept thinking that if things got worse I would go to the doctor, but I never became so sick that I could justifying taking off work. As many people with chronic conditions do, I just made adjustments and kept going.

Then, without any warning, my digestive system rebelled in a big way over the course of one weekend in early May. Colitis? You have got to be kidding me! Feeling pretty uncomfortable I kept close to home and worked on landscaping projects outside, read books, and worried. After two weeks I contacted my doctor.

Tests were ordered. Everything was negative: there was no obvious infection. Relieved, I decided to just give things a little more time. There was one test result that did nag at me, however. My renal function was a little low.

Two weeks later, lying on the couch with aching legs and abdominal discomfort, it finally hit me. I have a rash on my face. My knees hurt. I have Reynaud’s disease. I have a low renal function test result. When tested in the past I had a positive ANA (anti-nuclear antibody) test. This sounded like one of those cases presented at the weekly seminars when I worked in a rheumatology research lab…

Alarms went off in my head. Lupus! I called the doctor’s office and scheduled an appointment for an exam to be evaluated for lupus.

Lab Tests
Good grief! This is how much blood was drawn to do my rheumatology testing!

“How is it possible that you haven’t already been diagnosed?” my doctor asked me.  How indeed? Oh yeah. That adjusting and just keep going thing. She ordered a huge battery of tests for a comprehensive rheumatology screening, and told me no more gluten in case it was celiac disease. I was horrified. Celiac disease! I wasn’t prepared for that! “Celiac disease would be good,” she said. “We can treat that.” Believe it or not, at that moment celiac disease seemed like the end of the world. I left her office in a sad condition and counted the number of tests ordered while heading down the stairs to the lab. Twenty-two lab tests. Yikes!

Over the next week the test results slowly trickled into the patient portal where I could see them.  Everything was coming back negative. Because of the rheumatology research lab job, I had some idea about which antibody test results were linked to lupus. The big lupus markers were all coming back negative. I began to convince myself that I was a big over-reacting baby. Then suddenly a note came from my doctor telling me that she was sending me to rheumatology for a consultation and three tests I hadn’t seen before appeared in my inbox on the patient portal. Positive results for auto-antibodies associated with scleroderma and Sjogren’s Syndrome.

Pills in case
Look at the great pill case that my sister sent me to help me keep track of all these meds!

At the end of August, 2014 I was diagnosed with both of these disorders and my new rheumatologist started me on medications meant to slow down the progress of the disease and to treat the symptoms that I already have. Eight prescriptions and three over the counter medications!! I have the type of scleroderma that is referred to as limited systemic sclerosis (CREST). This is not good news.  I already have significant skin tightening on my neck, face and hands, and my digestive system has been impacted, but my heart and lungs are doing OK. In a strange way,  however, I feel lucky. Very, very lucky and thankful.  This Thanksgiving I continue to be thankful for what I have. I have been diagnosed, I’m on medication, I am retired and have time to knit…

This is just part of the yarn stash...
This is just part of the yarn stash…

Well, isn’t that a bitch! Here I am in possession of a world-class yarn stash, and I have a rare medical condition that may leave me unable to knit. The skin is getting especially tight across my right hand…

Luckily I am a master of adaptation. That whole adjust and keep going thing has prepared me for an event just like this.

Time to knit fast. Knit very fast! Just cast on and don’t look back.

Enjoy your gluten. 🙂