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.

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The Scleroderma Chronicles: July Report

If there is one true thing about scleroderma, it is that it never stays the same. I think of it like the weather or road conditions; as soon as you think you’ve figured out what to wear or the best route to drive to work, things change.  If you are dealing with scleroderma in your life, you just learn to roll with the punches. One day you feel fine, and the next one you have brain fog, your knees won’t bend, and gastritis has come to call. One night my hair just started falling out and strands began snowing down onto my shoulders and arms. I didn’t know if I should laugh or cry…

Ugh. This is scleroderma. Bad days come and go, plans shift, and life goes on.

FitBit
Look at what I bought!

Here’s the deal: I’m doing much better! I’m having a lot of good days!! After months of struggling my doctors and I realized that I needed to go off some of my meds because I was getting much better! My lung volume has increased, my heart is looking normal, and my blood pressure is down. Bam! Time to start getting some exercise, don’t you think? I bought a Fitbit and slowly began to increase my daily steps until I could do 5,000 steps every day. Then I began to increase my active minutes and now, at the end of July, I am logging 3 days of exercise a week. This is huge, huge, huge!! Yay, Fitbit!!

Banana smoothie
I’m drinking a banana/yoghurt smoothie every day now.

If you slogged through any of my June posts (Science and the Scleroderma Girl) you know that I maintain a log of my symptoms, diet, and other data that occurs to me. (Yep. Weather fronts do make it harder for me to breathe. Who would have suspected that! Thank you log book!) This month I added bananas to my diet to see if they would help reduce muscle pain. I think they’re helping, and getting exercise probably helps too. Yay, bananas!

Castor oil.
I bought this to use in my eyes after my ophthalmologist suggested that I try it to help with my Sjogren’s symptoms. Kind of freaked me out as I was taught as a child that caster beans were poisonous…

When I bought this oil on Amazon I noticed in the comments by other customers that they used it on their scalps to help hair grow. Who knew? Maybe that is a thing, I thought. I checked in the scleroderma online forums and decided to oil my scalp once a week. Now, at the end of July, I am happy to report that my hair seems to be growing back. Yay, castor oil!!

Today was the last day of July. It was a pretty good month for me and my scleroderma. There were some definite bumps during the month, but over all the patient scientist approach to managing my trio of autoimmune diseases is paying off for me. Exercise, bananas, and castor oil were big positives for the month. The negatives were discovering that I can’t have any sunshine on my skin, and I absolutely can’t cut down on the stomach acid reducer med. Oh, well, even negative results are good to know.

Wild bunny.
This bunny has taken to sleeping in my front flower bed, but isn’t eating any of my flowers. How positive can you get?

Yesterday I bought a new data notebook. I have some ideas about some new stuff to experiment with…

Science and the Scleroderma Girl rides again.

Bring it on, August!

Goodbye “Science and the Scleroderma Girl”… I’m Heading Back to the Garden

Today is World Scleroderma Day. Gosh, there should be a huge post today that pulls together my whole monthly effort… nope. That sounds just exhausting, doesn’t it. How about we just head out to my garden to see what’s up. After that I can show you the big picture on what I’ve been doing all month in “Science and the Scleroderma Girl”.

Getting into the garden has been difficult for me since the sun and I are not friends. Last week I went out for a couple of hours to weed in the morning in the shade, and yep… I developed a rash on my arms and then the flare arrived. I was holed up for days getting over that little misadventure. After I  recovered I tried out weeding after dark. Gosh, I’ve had more fun moping floors. It just isn’t the same if you can’t actual see what you are doing. I wonder why that is?

Arm
But look at what I scored today while I was out shopping!! Do you see that the pattern is teal colored butterfly wings? How more appropriate for World Scleroderma Day can you get?
Sun protection!
Do you see what is written on this arm? This is a outfit designed to provide full sun protection for people playing in the surf. It is cool, wicks moisture, and will protect me from the sun. This is exactly what I need!
Jacket
Check out the whole top. This plus a hat should set me up for morning gardening, don’t you think?

There are leggings too to provide complete sunblock for the surf enthusiast, but that probably is more than I need to tend to the roses. I usually get wet while I’m watering in the evenings, and once again this baby should handle it fine. I am so set up for the rest of the summer!

Let’s see what is still alive in the garden after a week of amazing, blistering heat. Yesterday it was 105°F; these plants are no longer happy.

Purple flowers
The flowers in the tub on the back porch made it…
Veronica flowers
So did this Veronica. I’ve been transplanting this into several flower beds since it does so well.
Strawberries
Even the strawberry plants are producing well. Look at the berries that I had Tuesday afternoon. I decided to wait until Wed morning to pick them…
Bare strawberry plant
Unfortunately a squirrel beat me to them. This is all that was left, and I’m sure that he left this half eaten berry just to taunt me!

This weekend will be cooler, and I gave all the plants a good watering this evening so that they will recover over the next few days. Poor plants. Life has been tough for the last couple of weeks: heavy rain for a week followed by triple digit temperatures and blazing sunlight.

Now that we are leaving the garden here is my Scleroderma Month of June:

What I didn’t put into this was a lot of actual information about what scleroderma is. Oops. This post that I wrote for Rare Disease Day should cover that glaring omission.

So, this is World Scleroderma Day. All over the world people have posted the pictures of their smiles in an effort to make an invisible, but pretty darn serious, disease have a face. My smiling face is above: a little crooked these days, my lips have gotten too thick to smile right, and my hair is falling out, but I am doing well. Every day brings a new challenge, but still, with good luck, humor and a touch of science, I rise.

Have a good weekend everyone!

Science and the Scleroderma Girl: The Patient Scientist

It is really annoying to have an illness that just keeps going on and on and on… think of the energizer bunny here. A really annoying scleroderma energizer bunny. I am so over it already. I love my doctors, but they are really focused on slowing down the progression of my bad boy illness, systemic sclerosis, and are kind of dismissive of the pain and dizziness that is coming my way courtesy of the fibromyalgia and Sjogren’s Syndrome.

It isn’t that they don’t care. They just have clearly defined priorities in mind as they treat me. It is kind of like when my mom was going through chemo for her cancer. The doctors were very sympathetic about her struggles with nausea and fatigue, and helped her the best they could, but they did not let up on the chemo schedule. My doctors are also sympathetic, but they still took my immunosuppressant dose up as high as they could when I got into trouble with my lungs two years ago. Oh, you are having trouble sleeping? So sorry. Hang in there. It will get better…

Cat and computer.
Do you see how much help MacKenzie is giving me while writing this? He too is sympathetic. Oh, your legs are hurting today? Here, I’ll sleep on top of them for you…

I had a surge of rebellion about the same time that this was going on and decided that I would consider myself a walking experiment of one and would try to get a better handle of my symptoms; surely there must be correlations between what I was doing in my day and how I felt. If I understood my test results better perhaps I could have better conversations with my doctors. Stop being a victim, I told myself, and become a patient scientist!

Food log.
Today’s entry into my little symptom journal. I started out tracking my daily food intake, and then added in entries about other symptoms.

The food log was perhaps the most important thing that I did. I began to figure out lots of things by focusing on what I was eating and what my symptoms were. I ignored the “universal truths” that I was being told to me by other people and focused on what was happening with me. Bam! Some of the things that I figured out actually changed the diagnosis list on my chart, and I certainly improved the quality of my life. Here is the short list of what I discovered about myself: absolutely NO SALT or other forms of sodium, gluten is fine, fiber is a problem, lactose free dairy with live cultures is a daily must, bananas are boss, and I should eat foods with a low glycemic index. Oh yeah: vitamin D and krill oil supplements are good, but tart cherry supplements will damage my kidneys. Good to know.

What happened when I changed my diet? Muscles pain went way down, I got more energy, my gastritis and other GI symptoms improved greatly, I slept better, and the quality of my life improved. For each of those food choices I used myself as an experimental animal. Just one change was made in my diet, and then I tracked symptoms for a week or two to see what happened. My latest experiment has involved bananas; a banana a day keeps my muscle pain way down. Who knew? Have a headache? Eat raisins!

I began to gather other types of data. I took my blood pressure during times when I was feeling poorly to see what it was doing. That’s how I figured out that my inhaler was making my blood pressure drop. Now that I’m off my blood pressure medicine, my pressure is back up, and I’m using my inhaler safely every day. Today I noticed that I was a little short of breath while doing laundry…

Oxygen monitor
Oh. That blood oxygen level is a little two low. It was in the high 80s when I first checked, and was up to 91% by the time I snapped the picture.
Oxygen monitor
Well look at that! This is what happened a couple of minutes later after using the inhaler. My oxygen level is up to 95% and my heart rate has dropped back down. I really need to use this inhaler every day as it is helping keep my small airway disease under control.

Now that I’m using the inhaler daily my energy level is up in my little notebook. Hmm… I’m not sure if this is completely due to the inhaler as I also added bananas to my diet, but as I keep logging observations I may figure it out.

I also have started collecting all the data that I can get from my routine heart and lung testing. I usually get a phone call from the doctor that tells me how I’m doing, but with the data in hand I can have more meaningful conversations with my doctors.

PFT results.
This is some data from pulmonary function tests that were done 2 years apart.

The data that I have circled in the upper table of data shows that my lung volume didn’t change very much when administered a dose of albuterol during my first pulmonary function test, which was done right after I was diagnosed. Two years later, when I was really struggling with shortness of breath, the data in the lower table showed that I improved 16% in my lung volume after that same drug. The technician told me that this was a big response and that he was sure I would be prescribed a drug to help me; that didn’t happen until I made an appointment with my internist weeks later, told her about my response on the drug, and showed her the specific data that I had picked up from the hospital where the test was done. Bam!! I got the inhaler that day.

By collecting data at home and paying attention to my symptoms I’ve been able to give better information to my doctors who have responded with changes in my drug protocol and treatment focus. Today all of my doctors shoot me a full copy of all of my testing data as soon as they get it. I also can access data through the patient portal at Kaiser. I follow changes in data over time, and then I can have a meaningful discussion with my physicians when I see them.

I’m just one data point out of all of the patients that my doctors treat, but by using myself as a walking experiment of one I’ve been able to figure out management strategies to help myself and how to better communicate with my medical team to work with them as a collaborative partner.

This is good. I will never be in control of my illnesses, but I sure am poking them with the pitchfork.

Err… knitting needles. They have definitely been poked.

It is good to be a science geek.