The Scleroderma Chronicles: The Fourth Year Report

Wow. It is hard to believe it, but it has been more than 4 years since my diagnosis: Limited systemic sclerosis (scleroderma) and Sjogren’s disease. Time just flies when you are having fun, right? Seriously, I have been reflecting for a few weeks about what to write to mark the end of the fourth year. Should I write about how strange a dichotomy scleroderma is: people tell me that I look good, but what they can’t see is how my entire life is organized around accommodating my illnesses. Maybe I should write about how I have developed a Zen-like patience as I hit each roadblock; why worry about things you can’t change when in the course of time all will become more clear? Maybe I should talk about growth. Personal growth in the face of a heartless disease as I came to terms with my own ability to become an active member of my treatment team and to assert myself in the face of medical experts.

Done! Personal growth it is!

Author wearing an hand knit shawl.
Even in the worst of times it is possible to create items of beauty that provide comfort and are therapeutic. I knit this shawl last spring while my doctors were determining if I had developed potentially fatal complications of systemic sclerosis: pulmonary hypertension or heart failure were the candidates. There was nothing to do but to knit on as I waited for test results.

When I was first diagnosed I really did go through a time of sadness and grief.  It just came in waves for me as I began to figure out that systemic sclerosis and Sjogren’s are both incurable and difficult to manage. Then I realized that they might be disabling. Then it finally dawned on me that they might be fatal.  To my horror I discovered that the 10-year survival rate was 60%. There would never, ever, be a “better”, I thought. The best I can hope for is becoming stable and maybe getting some softening of my skin.

The great unknowns of scleroderma really wore me down. Doctors kind of dodged my questions or referred me to another doctor on the team. I was afraid, and I didn’t want to make too much of a fuss because I was dependent on the medical specialists and I didn’t want to alienate them. I was struggling, weak, and truly a victim of my disease.

Flash forward 4 years. Things have changed. I began to keep a food log and journal and I worked out dietary changes that helped me. I participated in a self-management study, and I attended a couple of conferences. I remembered that I was trained to be a scientist, and I employed logic and reason in my scleroderma life. I spent a lot of time with Doctor Google and reading research papers at PubMed. I fired a rheumatologist, found another one, and convinced my primary care physician to meet with me regularly and to filter all the test results and doctors notes into a cohesive action plan. My care improved as I communicated better with my doctors and they developed a good sense of me and the other doctors on the team. My power over scleroderma grew as I faced down crisis after crisis. I may not conquer this disease, but by golly I will be brave and give it a good whacking!

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. I have to get routine blood testing to make sure that I am tolerating the drugs that I’m on well. I went for the blood draw two weeks ago, and a couple of days later I got a phone call. There was a problem: a liver enzyme was suddenly elevated above normal ranges. I was told to head on over to urgent care to get checked out. I’m a compliant patient, so that is what I did. This is what happened when I met with the doctor in urgent care.

Doc: You’re fine. It’s just a bad test result.

Me: I have been experiencing worse (crushing) fatigue for the last two weeks as I’ve been fighting a cold and my muscle pain is pretty bad. I have been staying in bed two days recovering for every day up.

Doc: I think that we should put you on prednisone.

Me: I am very nervous about that. I’m already pretty immunosuppressed, and my pulmonologist has specifically told me to refuse steroids if I hit the ER.

Doc: Then we should start you on Cymbalta for the fibromyalgia pain.

Me: That is a drug that I’ve seen advertised that seems to have a lot of side effects. I just came through a rough patch because I was overmedicated this spring, and I’m nervous about adding another drug due to possible kidney or liver complications.

Doc: Can I at least offer you some antidepressants since you say you have trouble getting out of bed?

Me: I have fatigue not depression. It’s part of my illness.

Doc: Most chronically ill people have depression…

Me: Yep. I’ve dealt with anxiety and depression in the past. This isn’t depression.

Doc: But you will feel better.

Me: Hey, I’m not here seeking help with my illness this afternoon. I got sent here by rheumatology because of a high liver enzyme result, which you feel we should ignore, and I have chronic kidney disease. You want to prescribe a drug that will be cleared by one of those two organs? I’m not comfortable with any more medications without talking to my other doctors first. (I start edging towards the door to escape this frustrated pill pusher… maybe he just is excited to have a patient with a rare disease and wants to contribute, but I am out of here!)

Seriously, I do feel like I am living in a soap opera half the time that is being directed by my bossy cat. A soap opera staring yarn, of course!

Cat being petted.
But he is also a great source of comfort. Here he is hanging out while I was knitting the shawl that I’m wearing in my picture.

That little episode put me back into bed for another day, but I was strong, I felt informed about my illnesses, and I didn’t allow a strange doctor who was dismissive of test results to prescribe me new medications. I have grown. My thinking about what is acceptable medical care has crystalized, and I feel empowered. I will talk about these drugs with my current team, and there will be a consensus decision before I start anything new.

Over the weekend I decided to double my dose of krill oil and to eat a banana every single day. 10 days later I am over the cold, I feel much better, my muscle pain is almost gone, and it seems I am through the flare. Yippee!

So, four years into this ugly disease where am I at? I am stable! The drugs that I am on have greatly increased survival rates for systemic sclerosis patients. My skin has softened some and I have pretty good function. My Raynaud’s is well controlled. My lungs, heart and kidneys have improved and my hypertension has vanished. My GI tract continues to rule my life, but I have gotten better control with a careful diet. Fatigue and pain stalk me continually, but I was thrilled to hear this week that my eyes have also improved since my ophthalmologist started me on krill oil. Hug a krill, everyone!

I have grown, and I am stronger for it. There will be many more adventures and bumps along the scleroderma road, but I am good. My priorities have shifted, and my values have clarified. I value the small things,  have lost interest in making money, and budget my time ruthlessly. Scleroderma as a personal growth plan. Who knew?

Tomorrow I go in for the repeat blood tests to see if that enzyme is now back into normal ranges.

Whatever happens, I am good.

Advertisements