The Scleroderma Chronicles: Rare Disease Day 2020

I’m an orphan. I’m a zebra. I am rare. This is a club that is hard to get into because it has really specific criteria, but it also has lots and lots of members.

What, you say? Whatever is she talking about?

I’m talking about rare diseases! A rare disease is classified as one that impacts a small percentage of the total population. Here in the United States that means fewer than 200,000 people diagnosed with the condition/disease. Perversely, there are a lot of people with rare diseases as there are almost 7,000 different rare diseases!  Some of these diseases are common enough that you may be familiar with them: albinism, achondroplasia (a type of dwarfism), and autoimmune hepatitis are examples. Others are very rare. Most are genetic in origin, and half of them impact children. More than 90% of rare conditions have no drug treatment. You can learn more  about rare diseases in general and search for specific conditions/diseases in the links at the end of this post.

So, what is Rare Disease Day? The purpose of this day is to raise awareness of the many, many diseases that are classified as “rare” around the world. The hope is that by shining a light on these diseases, and to put a face on the people who struggle with the many rare conditions that are out there, there will be improvements in how these people are handled in the health care system, drug companies, funding agencies, and by the public.

I joined the rare disease club 5 years ago when I was diagnosed with systemic sclerosis, a serious form of scleroderma that has no cure, can be disabling, progressive, and often fatal. These last 5 years have certainly been eye-opening for me, and I believe that my experiences are shared by many others who struggle with rare diseases. Let me list some of my epiphanies during this journey:

    • People in general are dismissive of illnesses that they have never heard of before. If you are a person with a rare disease, it is almost a certainty that no one has heard of your disease. Oops. You just got written off as an attention-seeking hypochondriac by a person who hardly knows you because they never heard of your disease…
    • The health care industry is designed to treat people with common diseases, and often ignores, dismisses, or denigrates patients who don’t fit the normal profile: the zebras. It is really, really hard to get a diagnosis for some rare conditions (autoimmune diseases like mine are famous for this). If you have a rare disease, you are trying to make your way through a system that wasn’t designed to identify and treat you.
    • There is little incentive for drug companies to develop treatments that can only be used for a small patient population. That’s why there rarely is an effective treatment or cure. That’s also why drugs for rare diseases are called orphan drugs; another name for a rare disease is an orphan disease. Yep, I’m an orphan, but there are several drugs with orphan status in the development pipeline right now. I’m lucky that way; most orphan diseases have no drugs for treatment under development.
    • To be rare means you may be too risky to treat. Once you are diagnosed with an unusual health condition it actually interferes with your medical care; because you are complicated physicians are likely to dismiss or “just monitor” symptoms that would receive immediate attention in another patient. Without more experience they can’t be sure what is “normal” for you and/or if the treatment usually used for other patients might make things worse for you. There’s another whole blog post about this on the way!
    • It is really, really hard for people to wrap their heads around “chronic.” We almost all universally believe that people can get better if they just try. Attitude is everything, right? If you just took this supplement, started eating keto, got more exercise and sunshine, tried essential oils…
    • Closely associated to this belief in the general public is one that assigns blame to the ill for their disease. If you are sick it must be because you ate too much red meat, or are obese, or failed to exercise enough. You should have eaten organic!! I know that people do this because they want to believe that they are safe from a similar diagnosis, but it still adds to the burden of those dealing with a life off the mainstream, caused, not by their choices, but by an inherited flaw in their genes.
    • If all of this wasn’t enough, or maybe because of all of this, rare diseases are expensive and isolating. Resources are few. Support is hard to find. You feel alone. An orphan.

So, this is Rare Disease Day. Some people with rare diseases must share experiences like mine; many are far, far worse than my own. If you would like to learn more about rare diseases here are some resources: