New Chinese Curse: May You Have An Interesting Disease

It has been two months since I started the drug methotrexate for my systemic sclerosis (scleroderma). I put off starting the drug for a few months as I was concerned about potential side effects (well, for one thing, it increases the chance that I will develop cancer. Since I’m now at high risk for lymphoma that kind of gave me some pause…), but struggling with fatigue and other annoying symptoms I finally made the call to my rheumatologist and started on the drug.

The first month was a little hard; nausea, headache, more fatigue, and what I called the dizzy-wobblies. My hair started falling out. By the second month, however, I began to notice that my muscles had stopped hurting. I had more energy. The edema in extremities was definitely much better. I was out of the house and doing much more. Hey, this is improvement. Go methotrexate! I was ready to make the pom-poms and sign up for the cheer squad.

Then more downsides began to emerge in the second month. I started to notice that my knees really hurt the day after I took the methotrexate pills. As always, I checked the Internet to see if anyone else had noticed this. Yep. It’s a thing.  I decided to baby my knees a couple days a week and to keep on with the drug. Then my back started to hurt, I noticed a rash on my arms the same day that my knees hurt, and itching became a thing. My ribs started up with shooting pains. The pain spread to the entire right side of my lower ribs, I struggled to breathe and it was hard to raise my arm. Yikes!! The pain was so widespread it didn’t seem reasonable that it was just a cracked rib…

IV in arm.
Here I am with the IV tapped off so I could make the trip to the CAT Scan machine.

That’s how I ended up at the acute diagnostic center run by Kaiser for we after-hours folk that don’t want to go to the ER. (The ER has sick people. When you are on immuno-suppressants you avoid sick people like the plague!) The nurse was nice. The doctor was great. The words “possible blood clot in your lung” and “we want a CAT scan right away” were said. I would have been more upset if they hadn’t also just said “we’re giving you morphine to get this pain under control”. I would have hugged that nurse if I could lift my arm.

Then she blew it. As she stuck me with the needle to start the IV she said, “I once worked with someone who had scleroderma so I’ve heard of it before. Such an interesting disease. She did develop heart problems though, which was sad since she was so young.” Great. This is sort of like a Chinese curse: May you have an interesting disease. I grumped about her comment to my son who was there with me. “Well, you have to admit, it is kind of interesting,” he said.

Aside: It is an interesting disease. One of the great ironies of my life is that I have a degree in molecular biology and once worked in a rheumatology research lab on a scleroderma project. My boss Dr. Angeline Douvas and I at that time used the auto-antibodies from scleroderma patients to capture and identify the protein SCL-70 (topoisomerase). We spent a lot of time speculating about what was going on in these patient’s genes and why that was manifesting itself the way it was in their clinical symptoms. We were suspicious that it might be triggered by a virus. Here’s the paper: I’m the second author. Angie would find my diagnosis to be so interesting but she passed away in 2000 before I became sick. Yep, it is all so interesting. Anti-centromere antibodies! What the heck is going on here?! This is an important disease that should be researched not just for a cure to help people who have it, but to also gain essential understandings about cells and genes that can be used in the treatment of many other diseases. As it turns out there is a bill in congress right now concerning scleroderma and fibrosis research and you can contact your congressperson using this link.

Still, I found the nurse’s interested detachment from my personal situation to be somewhat appalling. Still in pain I was wheeled off for the CAT scan, and then waited for my chat with the doctor. NOT a blood clot. NOT my liver. They could see old breaks in my ribs (thank you osteopenia) but NOT a current one. It turned out that it was inflammation of the cartilage in my ribcage, a condition called costochondritis. It’s a scleroderma thing, just another bump in the road when you are dealing with a complex medical condition. Fabulous. The Internet tells me that it usually resolves within a year. OMG! A year??!!! That’s a lot of pain killers! Oh wait; that’s a lot of knitting! Best to look on the bright side.

The next morning my rheumatologist’s office called to let me know I should stop taking the methotrexate. Farewell, methotrexate. It was nice getting to know you but you didn’t play nice with my cartilage. I now have an appointment with my rheumatologist on the 20th and he will discuss my new drug options with me then. I’m sad to let methotrexate go, but so glad that there are other drugs out there waiting for me to try them out.

Just another day in the life of an interesting disease.