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:

Rare Disease Day

Today was Rare Disease Day. I woke up with notes in my email box reminding me that this was the big day. Oh, yeah. I guess I should say something about it on the blog, but what? I mean, I do have a rare disease, but why should anyone else care about it?

rare disease dayI spent most of the day thinking about that. I worked on the loom (weaving is right around the corner!), cleaned the house, cooked a yummy dinner, and pondered the relevance of rare diseases throughout the day. For a while in the late afternoon I almost started writing, but ended up knitting instead. Now it is evening and I think that I might be there.

You see, anyone dealing with a chronic condition eventually comes to terms with their altered life. Grace under fire becomes the status quo. We deal. We lean in. Maybe the big success of the day was taking a shower or getting dinner cooked, but by golly we did it!!

If you have a rare disease, it is a little harder yet. People have never heard of your condition. Your doctor may have never treated another person with your disease before. Your friends and family sometimes suspect that you might be an attention-seeking hypochondriac. You wander the internet looking for answers. There is little research being done for your disease because so few people are impacted by new drugs or treatments. In a world with finite funding for medical research it makes better sense to put the money where the most patients are: cancer, diabetes, heart disease, asthma. I get it.

The purpose of Rare Disease Day is to shine a little light on the many, many conditions that are classified as “rare”. It is also a campaign to raise some awareness about the human impact of being a patient with one of these conditions. To be frank, it kind of sucks!

Fat swollen fingers with thick stiff skin are part of my condition. On this day I accidentally triggered a Raynaud’s attack that cut off the circulation to one of my fingers. 

You see, rare diseases are also referred to as “orphan diseases”. You do feel like an orphan. Alone, alone, all alone. I’m lucky to be hooked up with other people who share my condition, but that is because I live in a large metropolitan area. I have systemic sclerosis*, which is considered the most severe of the diseases in rheumatology. There are only 100,000 of us in the United States (which, if my math is right, is 1 in 50,000 Americans), so if you live in a small town chances are you will never find another person who has the same illness that you do. I am lucky.  I belong to a support group and have found online resources, the most important of these being you people who take the time to read my blog.

Here is what I decided is the most important message that I should put out on this day set aside for me and all the many, many other people who deal with a condition/illness that no one has ever heard of before. If someone says, “I have (crazy-ass disease you’ve never heard of before)”, don’t say, “I’ve never heard of that!” in a dismissive manner as you turn away. Say instead, “What is that?”  Invite the person that you are talking with to teach you about their unusual condition. Really, it will mean the world to them.

They will feel less like an orphan if you do.

*Systemic sclerosis, which is serious form of scleroderma, is an incurable, disabling, and progressive autoimmune disease that causes inflammation and scarring of the connective tissue of the skin, blood vessels and internal organs. It is often fatal, but in recent years the survival numbers have improved due to new therapies (I love my immunosuppressants!). Currently there is no drug to directly treat systemic sclerosis but there are drugs and treatment strategies on the way. Right now there is a bill in Congress to fund scleroderma research called the Scleroderma and Fibrosis Research Enhancement Act, H.R. 3666.