The Scleroderma Chronicles: Chasing down the Cytokines

There was more response than I expected from my last post about my efforts to obtain a better understanding about my chronic conditions, the new drugs I was taking, and how to lower my inflammation. I offered in that post to share the links that I used to figure out what foods impact the levels of cytokines that are important in my systemic sclerosis. I’ve gotten feedback/requests for the spreadsheet with my links that I used in my adventures at PubMed.

I’ve been thinking about this for a couple of days, and I think that the most useful thing to do would be to share my process as I hunted down information about cytokines involved in my systemic sclerosis (SSc), and the cytokines that I needed to pay attention to in my diet.

I started out asking: What are the cytokines involved in systemic sclerosis? I did searches using terms like cytokines and systemic sclerosis. Here are some of the links to papers that I found.

I kept a list of the cytokines that were being measured in these studies and I finally began to get a sense of the four big players that were being measured and considered as targets for therapy: Tumor Necrosis Factor alpha (TNFα), Interferon gamma (IFN-γ), Interleukin-6 (IL-6), and Interleukin-1beta (IL-1β). You can follow the same process to research any inflammatory disease that you are interested in; you may get different results. (For example, C-Reactive Protein, called CRP for short, features in many inflammatory conditions. For little SSc me, not so much… my levels are normal.) Anyway, once I had the cytokines of interest, I did searches on all 4 of them. Here’s my info on TNF-α.

InformationSource
TNF-α is also a potent inflammatory mediator and apoptosis inducerThe role of Tumor Necrosis Factor-alpha (TNF-α) in the pathogenesis of systemic lupus erythematosus
Produced by activated immune cells (macrophages, NK cells, T-cells) known to trigger a series of various inflammatory molecules, including other cytokines and chemokines The Role of Tumor Necrosis Factor Alpha (TNF-α) in Autoimmune Disease and Current TNF-α Inhibitors in Therapeutics
TNF-α causes other immune response cells to produce IL-1 and IL-6Tumor necrosis factor – Wikipedia
My question: What does TNF-α do?

I did the same for the other three cytokines and it turns out that for me, it is best to reduce all of them in my blood. At this point I made a little chart with the 4 cytokines at the top and began to do searches on different foods that I thought were anti-inflammatory.

FoodTNFαIFN-γIL-6IL-1β
Chile (Capsaicin)
Tart Cherry
Tomatoes (Lycopene)
Question: Which foods/supplements will decrease these cytokines levels

Now the searching gets easy. I just typed in the questions in the search bar like, “Does capsaicin reduce TNFα” or maybe “Does capsaicin reduce cytokines” and the answer would quickly pop up with some resources. Warning: the search engine will give you the pertinent text and then you are on your own as you search through these papers! If you just go with the fast answers, you will take some risks… I told my sister that tomatoes were bad because I didn’t read the whole text, and I’m not sure if she has forgiven me yet…

Anyway, here are some papers about the foods/supplements above:

If I found a source that said one of the cytokines was reduced by one of my targeted foods, I just put an “X” in that box and moved on. I was no longer recording all of the links in my excitement, and as I found info it sometimes confirmed previous finds, but not always. If I got contradictory information, I was forced to read whole papers. Ugh. Also, you might want to try a different search engine; I used Chrome on my phone and Explorer on the computer, which is another reason for incomplete links on the computer. For the three foods in the table above it ended looking like this.

FoodTNFαIFN-γIL-6IL-1β
Chile (Capsaicin)xx
Tart Cherryxx
Tomatoes (Lycopene)xxx
Question: Which foods/supplements will decrease these cytokines levels

I hope this unpacks the process that I used and helps with any searches that you decide to do that are specific to your own needs/interests.

Happy Caturday!!

The Scleroderma Chronicles: Song of the Cell, Dance of the Cytokines

I’m reading a really wonderful book right now that is really speaking to me on so many levels.

This man is a BioGeek of the first order! He interweaves his experiences, patients, memories, and the history of cells together in a way that makes me green with envy. He unpacks the history of our understanding of cells by bringing those scientists to life in a way that makes me care about them; if only I could write that well. He is the teacher that I wish I had been as he reveals to us how cells work together to create complex human systems, and then ties all of that to the treatment of disease. I’m still in the first parts of the book, but I have already filled my kindle with highlights and notes.

This book was published at the exact right moment when I needed it. I have totally gone down the rabbit hole at PubMed over the last two weeks as I have read paper after paper while chasing down the major players in my chronic conditions (why am I sick, and what exactly are these new meds doing…) and how they link to inflammation. Why would anyone do something like this?

Well, it all comes down to this. I’m on high-risk drugs with some serious side effectss, and I want to make informed decisions about whether I continue taking them. I also had a run-in with elderberry juice, and was rescued by green chile; as a BioGeek I was sucked down the curiosity rabbit hole after that whole adventure. What? That doesn’t happen to you? Listen, it has been so bad I haven’t even been knitting!!!

These are the two drugs that I’m trying to understand. In his book Siddhartha Mukherjee argues that our understanding of cells, and how they work, has transformed medicine into the modern miracle that I am currently benefiting from. Drugs that directly interact with the molecular machinery of cells, the signals between them and the biochemical pathways that cells use to function, are the first of the major transformative directions modern medicine is taking in the treatment of so many pathologies such as cancer, diabetes, neurological, and autoimmune diseases such as mine.

Systemic sclerosis is really darn complicated, as it turns out, and the sequence of events that have been happening in my body are so convoluted it’s hard to track them all. It started in the cells lining my blood vessels. As those cells got injured, they sent out signals that activated parts of my immune system. Signals from the immune cells caused other cells to transform and they began to produce scar tissue… scleroderma means “hard skin”, the hallmark of my condition. Whew. Here’s a condensed version of all that if you want to torture yourself and/or fall asleep.

Let’s go back to my meds. Ambrisentan blocks a molecule that is involved in making blood vessels constrict and raises blood pressure when it is active. That molecule, endothelin, is getting turned off by the drug, and there is evidence that this will improve my exercise-induced pulmonary hypertension and will also keep it from progressing; it plays nice with my other pulmonary hypertension drug which shuts down an enzyme pathway involved in blood pressure. Ofev is my new (fairy dust) drug, and it disables some of the essential enzymes in the cells of my lungs that are involved in creating scar tissue. Interstitial lung disease is currently the leading cause of death for systemic sclerosis patients; mine is being treated by side railing the process in the cells that are essential players in the pathology.

Yay! Molecular trickery at the cellular level saves the day! I will be staying on these meds as long as I can.

Dancing to the tune of the song of immune system cells are cytokines, the messenger molecules that travel between immune system cells and other cells that they interact with. The dance is complex, with all the different messengers traveling through the blood to target cells in the body, latching on and causing the cells to take actions. Some cytokines increase inflammation, and other will shut it down. Your immune system can get dialed up or shut down, depending on what the messages are. In my travels through research papers at PubMed I focused first on what cytokines were involved in systemic sclerosis, and then I hunted for papers that had measured the levels of these cytokines when people ate different foods.

Foods that you consume can make a big difference, evidently. Elderberry made me much worse (I cried in two different doctor’s offices), and green chile saved the day. I was done doing google searches for “anti-inflammatory foods” and was going after hard data.

.What did you expect? I’m a BioGeek. OF COURSE I made a spreadsheet with the data!

Tumor Necrosis Factor alpha (TNFα) is a big driver in the whole systemic sclerosis story along with Interferon gamma (IFN-γ). They cause an increase in two more cytokines that promote inflammation, Interleukin-6 (IL-6) and Interleukin-1 beta (IL-1β). All four of these bad boys will make my inflammation worse and (probably… I’m guessing here) encourage my conditions to progress. A lot of these foods/supplements will lower the levels of these cytokines, which explains why I feel better when I eat them. ELDERBERRY increases three of these cytokines which is why I felt like death warmed over while drinking it. Google said it was anti-inflammatory… can you see why I switched to research papers and cytokines? Green chile stew has tomatoes and green chile in it (and some yummy pork and garlic!); no wonder it turned things around. I will try to eat as many of the “good” foods as I can, but I’m going to focus on ones that really shut down TNFα and IL-6. I’m ignoring the IL-10 and CRP info because it wasn’t really as well supported as the others, and I know that my CRP (C-Reactive Protein) levels are normal.

My lunch smoothie: tart cherries, raspberries, banana, spinach, yogurt, chia seed (gag) and cranberry juice. For dinner I’m having a green chile cheesy corn pudding thing that tastes pretty darn good.

Wow. Did you read all of that stuff above? You deserve a prize for perseverance.

Here’s your prize. It’s like a “Where’s Waldo” picture, but this one is Where’s Hannah!

So, there is all is. Inside my systemic sclerosis, pulmonary hypertension, interstitial lung disease self, there are all these dancing cytokines, following the song of cells. Scientists who were captured by all of this and who were entranced by the Song of the Cell have developed the drugs that are treating the two life-threatening complications of systemic sclerosis that have come my way. Inside me, the promise of the song goes on.

Time to get back to my book.

Notes:

  • Okay, I made a whole other spreadsheet with links to all of the research papers that I used to get some understanding about these cytokines, and which were important in my disease. You don’t want to see all of that, right? If you do, say so in a comment and I’ll send some links your way!
  • I became curious about what is happening with Covid patients and the cytokine storm that can cause severe symptoms. Yep. It’s happening because of TNFα, IFN-γ, and IL-6. If you catch Covid, I don’t recommend elderberry.
  • Clinical trials are currently underway to see if an IL-6 inhibitor will be an effective treatment for systemic sclerosis.
  • I’m a lucky, lucky girl. I have a degree in molecular biology, used to work in an immunology lab that focused on IL-1, was involved in a scleroderma research project, and finished up my lab days on a project looking at the impact of capsaicin on rheumatoid arthritis. I can almost understand what I’m reading on PubMed. Almost.

The Scleroderma Chronicles: This Drug isn’t Fairy Dust…

Oh, boy. I have been having adventures in my ongoing dice game with the Reaper. My (wonderful) pulmonologist started me on a high-risk drug towards the end of August to slow down the formation of scar tissue in my lungs due to my interstitial lung disease. Oh, boy. The side effects were not exactly great as I battled ongoing GI side effects and started to lose weight again.

My doctors get kind of worked up when I lose weight.

What?!!

I know, like this is a bad thing? Here’s their thought process: there is a correlation between weight loss and poor prognosis, so my docs tend to focus on the one factor that I can control. Ugh. I sadly moved onto a diet of chia seed puddings, rice, and bananas while gulping down fiber tablets. After a week the tide seemed to turn, and I was eating more.

This is the new drug, just recently approved for the direct treatment of scleroderma-associated interstitial lung disease. Yay Ofev!

Ofev entered the scene just recently. I first heard about it in the early years of my scleroderma journey, and it was approved for use about three years ago. It took a few weeks for me to get enrolled to receive this drug and I need to go for mandatory blood testing each month before I can get my next month’s supply.

There is a significant risk of blood clots, and the pharmacist really stressed that I should watch for bruising.

A few days after my appetite returned, I woke up with a sore and swollen leg; I was also bleeding from both nostrils. When I looked at my leg there was a large bruise that grew to be about 6 inches across… not good, little BLZ, not good!! Yep. There was an immediate full stop on the drug for a week, and then I was started at a half dose a week later. A week after I had restarted Ofev my pulmonologist called to check up on me. No bleeding, but I was dealing with stomach discomfort.

He gave me the Fairy Dust talk. “There is no magic cure, and this drug is not fairy dust.” he said, “Drug companies can manipulate data to make drugs look better than they really are; I can’t stand for you to be miserable on this drug. There is a case to be made for focusing on quality of life as opposed to quantity of life.” (Well, that’s not discouraging at all, right?!) As he and I talked I remembered my conversation with the pharmacist; she had stressed how important it was to take the pills exactly 12 hours apart to maintain a steady blood level… I was taking the high dose only once a day at that point, so I was probably experiencing a spike every day in my bloodstream. I asked for a script for the lower dose and convinced him that I should try that for a month even though the total amount each day would be more. Over the last few weeks, I’ve had a little bleeding and a couple of little bruises, but nothing like I saw on the higher dose.

I moved to the lower dose twice a day three weeks ago. While that was going on my roses started blooming again.

A week ago, I went for more lung and heart testing. I bought green chili cheese fries and a chocolate shake on my way home because… my GI tract has decided that it loves me and I’m hungry again! Besides… green chile cheese fries!!! The results came in last Friday. My oxygen is better, and I can walk farther than a year ago! My pulmonologist doesn’t need to see me for 6 months. My heart testing and bloodwork was used by my cardiologist in a predictive model that returned a result of… low risk of pulmonary hypertension progression at this time. My heart failure numbers did double, but he isn’t all that concerned; he doesn’t need to see me for another 6 months.

I hung up the phone after the last call and thought to myself… maybe Ofev is Fairy Dust after all, because… I. Am. Better. This has been 2 months of NOT FUN, but the proof is in the pudding.

By the way, chia seed pudding, highly recommended by my pulmonologist, is just plain nasty! Chia seeds, without any doubt, are not fairy dust!!!

To be fair, it probably isn’t all Ofev; after all, it has been pointed out to me that it is not a magic cure. I started other drugs to control my pulmonary hypertension over the last year. I have made a lot of adjustments on my end to handle my lung disease. All of my down products are out of the house. I bought a new humidifier that can be easily cleaned each week. I put a high-grade filter into the furnace and bought an air purifier. I take all my drugs right on schedule and I do gulp down fiber-rich foods that are keeping any symptoms under control (except chia pudding… see above).

Okay, Reaper. You won a couple of the tosses, but this one is totally mine.

Pass the Fairy Dust and roll the dice.

This BLZ is ready to play!

The Scleroderma Chronicles: Rolling Dice with the Reaper

I’ve been collecting new diagnoses over the last year like an out-of-control yarnaholic shopper at a fiber festival. Yeah, that bad. That’s how my yarn stash got so out of control… I mean, you never know when you will need that fabulous color in the future, it is one-of-a-kind, and it’s cashmere… Anyway, let’s get back to the topic at hand. The last year has been really eventful, and the new tests, diagnoses, and drug interventions keep rolling in. Here’s the chronicle of events:

  • An early summer echocardiogram last year showed that I had developed a type of heart failure called diastolic dysfunction. Scleroderma is causing scar tissue to form in the muscle of my heart.
  • On September 1st I had a right heart catherization that showed that I had a hole in my heart that was disrupting the flow of oxygenated blood to my body. Oh. That explains those blue lips I’d been sporting around town.
Remember the BLZ?
  • Follow-up testing showed that I had exercise-induced pulmonary arterial hypertension. I was started on drugs to treat the condition.
  • I went into a flare of my systemic sclerosis (scleroderma) symptoms because of the increased blood flow due to the drugs.
  • Testing in February to hunt for the cardiac shunt (hole in my heart) revealed that there was something going on with my lungs. A subsequent CT scan in March showed that I had developed autoimmune pneumonia in both lungs, a condition called interstitial lung disease. The cause of the ILD was confirmed by a lung biopsy in May. Yep. It is scleroderma related, but I was still forced to get rid of all my down products in the house. I miss my down comforter…
  • All summer long I have gone through a staggered course of drug interventions as my doctors worked to get my lung disease under control.
This sunflower is a pretty good metaphor for how I’m doing at the moment. I’ve taken a beating, but I’m still blooming, by golly!

So, I’ve been taking a lot of drugs, and all of them carry some side effects. I became dizzy from one, my blood sugar zoomed up, and my vision became foggy. Another is causing hot flashes. One of them causes muscle pain, and a couple of them are seriously interfering with my sleep. Two drugs cause edema, so I’m taking another drug to combat that. Two weeks ago, I started the last drug on the list, Ofev, which has a list of side effects that made me pause a few days before taking the first pill.

Nausea, diarrhea, vomiting… well, okay. That’s stuff that I deal with all the time because of scleroderma…

Liver damage, heart attack, stroke… say, what? Seriously?

I had to go through a 30-minute phone interview with a pharmacist before the first 30-day shipment of the drug could be sent to me. I will need to get blood work done every single month to check my kidneys and liver before I can receive the next 30-day shipment. I need to be vigilant about watching for bruising and the symptoms of blood clots, including heart attack and stroke symptoms. One of my sons is checking in on me daily.

Time for a baby bunny picture, don’t you think? One of the best parts of the summer. 🙂

So, here’s the deal. I’m in a lot of online support groups where people are afraid to take drugs to treat their systemic sclerosis (scleroderma) because of the side effects. We live in a world where people are afraid to get vaccinated because of possible side effects. We live in a world where people are resistant to wearing a mask because of… well, they will tell you. They have more reasons than I have time to list, quite frankly.

This is kind of nuts, in my opinion. Did you see that list of diagnosed conditions? Yikes. Not good, little BLZ, not good. I’m facing down some really serious stuff here, and I will take these drugs, get through the side effects, and fight this like the hail-battered and grasshopper-savaged sunflower that I am!

Two weeks ago, I gulped down the first Ofev capsule. All those nasty GI symptoms arrived and had their way with me for several days, and then I was through it. I’m now on the final doses of all my drugs, and the sleep disruption is improving, the dizziness is gone, and the muscle pain is receding. I’ve learned to never, ever drink elderberry juice, and that green chili actually improves GI inflammation. I can do this, yes, I can!!

My niece referred to my battles with my disease and the drugs that I take as “rolling dice with the reaper”. I guess that is a one way to look at it. The other way is… you have to play to win. I chose to take the drugs; I chose to play. Hand over those dice, reaper!!

Last week I went to get my first follow-up CT scan of my lungs. “You can take off your mask, if you’d like,” said the technician. Nope! No one with a list of diagnosed conditions like mine should take off their mask in a diagnostic facility attached to an urgent care center. I roll more dice than I should as it is! Grumpy, the technician did my CT scan while I kept my mask on.

The message from my pulmonologist came last night. My lungs show improvement, and there is no new fibrosis.

Take that, reaper! I win this roll!!

Scleroderma: Shine like a Sunflower!

Six Months Update and Days of Color

Okay, this is an update on my progress on my goals for the year, but it is also a celebration of how well I feel at the moment and my launch into several projects that are rocking the color right now. Seriously, I am so drawn to colors at the moment that I’m pretty much doing some silly impulse shopping. Who cares. I’m having a good time!!

You want to see the silly impulse shopping and/or pink things first?

I could not leave the local garden center without that pink flamingo for my garden! Hello, it glows in the dark with an LED body. 🙂 What do you think about my Knitting Goddess fabric? Yep. That was a late-night Etsy impulse purchase. I’m thinking that it will make a fabulous project bag. What do you think about that Noro yarn? That will become a crocheted tote bag… I also needed to buy some brightly colored hooks to make the bag, and there may have been another big ball of beautiful yarn that fell into the shopping crate before I checked out, but I’ll never talk about it. My feet are hurting because of the spinning I’m doing, so I had to get those wicked compression socks!!! Yep, I am a total sucker for pink. Well, raspberry pink to be specific, but I will settle for hot pink. Finally, Hannah kept trying to drag off my knitted finger protectors, so I made her and Mateo some little tube-like cat thingies to play with. They like them!

Speaking of color, look at my progress on the spinning for Tour de Fleece.

Can you see that I am making progress? The bobbin on the right is where I am today. I’m almost through the crocus-colored roving (50/50 yak/silk from Greenwood Fiberworks), then I get to start on the variegated roving. I’ve been watching episodes of Vera on BritBox while I spin so I’m actually coming to think of this Tour de Fleece as the Tour de Northumbia… I am happy with the spinning as I think that my drafting is getting easier and the thread that I’m spinning is getting smoother. It may also be slightly larger, but I can live with that!

I started reading this book this week because… look at that cover!!!

I don’t want to talk about this book yet because it really is remarkable, and I am changing my opinion about it as I go. It’s like entering a dream world and just experiencing the adventure without worrying too much about what’s going on. In time, I’m sure, I’ll understand what is happening. Maybe. I don’t care. I’m so entranced at the moment I’m reading a couple of hours a day during the heat of the day.

There is color in the garden, too. Look at this:

There is more color in the garden to replace the fading roses. My veronica is finally blooming, and I went back to the garden center to buy more lavender plants. I now have 11 lavenders in the garden… don’t you think that I should get another, so it is an even dozen? The pink yarrow is hard at work. Oh, yeah, there was also a garter snake in the garden today. Not a lot of color, but a ton of fun to see.

So, how much progress has occurred over the last 6 months?

  • I finished 30 hats and 28 PICC line covers in the first 6 months. I was hoping to get 50 of each done this year, so I am on track.
  • I have removed 76 skeins of yarn (100g of yarn = a skein) from the stash through knitting and donations. I hope to get 100 skeins out before the end of the year, so I am on track. I did just have a 6-skein slip, but I’m not worried.
  • The other knitting accomplishments are two sweaters and two pairs of socks.
  • I finished a quilt and got it hung up on the wall!
  • I learned how to double knit. Actually, I’m really stoked about how fun it was and I am looking forward to doing some cute projects. (I found that chart online and watched videos to figure out how to do this. Piece of cake, as it turns out!)
  • I have finished 32 books.

Well, that’s the progress report. My son helped me get my table loom set up for me to use and I’m dreaming of warping the floor loom before the end of the year. (Mateo: that sounds like fun!!) I’m wondering if I can weave something with the yarn that I am spinning now, and I’ve pulled out another quilt kit that has been languishing forever in a cupboard so that I can work on that in my sewing room. I’m entering the last few days on the full dose of prednisone; the dose will be tapered off and stopped over the next two weeks. While I was on prednisone my rheumatologist gradually stepped up my immunosuppressant to a final dose that is double what I was on previously. I feel really good right now and I have huge plans for the rest of the year.

Scleroderma, behave yourself!!

The Scleroderma Chronicles: World Scleroderma Day, 2022

Wow, it is that day of the year again. The Niagara Falls will turn teal, Scleroderma organizations around the world are sending out messages and videos, and patients with scleroderma like me are wondering how best to showcase our conditions in a meaningful way. Here in the US the theme is Know Scleroderma. In Australia it is Shine Like a Sunflower.

The whole idea is to educate the public about this rare disease that pretty much flies under the radar to help secure support for patients, funding for research, and awareness of treatment options. Patients are encouraged to tell their stories and to do what they can to expand scleroderma awareness in the public eye.

Well, shoot. I do that all the time! I wrote about World Scleroderma Day last year and I kind of like what I wrote. I talked about what was going on in my illness and the progress that I was making in getting diagnosed and treated for the significant organ damage that was underway in my lungs and heart. I also mentioned the similarities between Covid-19 and systemic sclerosis (the type of scleroderma that I have), and the fact that people like me are still dealing with lockdown. You can read that post here.

So, what has changed in the last year and why am I typing away on my computer once again about World Scleroderma Day? Well… awareness and support are the messages that I’ve been urged to put out, but I’ve been reflecting on what I’ve learned this year and how it might be useful to others. This was a huge year for me… I was diagnosed with pulmonary arterial hypertension, a complication of systemic sclerosis that is developed by about 15% of patients, and I was also diagnosed with interstitial lung disease, another complication of systemic sclerosis that is also developed by about 15% of patients. These serious complications develop so routinely around the 15% mark that there is now a rule of thumb about it in treating patients with systemic sclerosis. There are other conditions that fall into the 15% rule, and I have two more of them: Sjogren’s Disease and diastolic dysfunction.

MacKenzie and I from a posting a few years ago.

So, I am getting a lot of experience in dealing with being sick in a way that is not visible to the public and is not the first thing considered when you head into a doctor’s office seeking help for debilitating symptoms that have no obvious cause. I have been successful this year in becoming an active participant in my own health care and I love my team! Here are my lessons learned:

  1. Physicians tend to diagnose with the most common condition that matches your symptoms. You know, if you are struggling with fatigue, it must be depression or sleep apnea…
  2. They also tell you to stay off the internet.
  3. That works great up to a point. Get onto the internet!!!! Look up the symptoms and treatment options for the condition/illness that your physician is talking about. Do they really fit? Go ahead with the testing that your doctor orders but continue to educate yourself. Get the full text of any testing reports (those are your tests on your body, so do insist… nicely…) Look up crazy words that you don’t understand.
  4. I should include here…DON’T PANIC… about any crazy-ass, scary condition that you run into on the internet that you think you might have. I mean, what could happen? You already are sick, and you won’t get magically worse overnight once you get a name for it. You might, however, get some really helpful treatment that could turn things around for you. That is, if you have that crazy-ass, scary condition that you really, probably, don’t have. DON’T PANIC!!
  5. What if you get test results that say “you are fine” and your doctor pretty much is ready to stop there? Um… go right back to specific test results and symptoms to reset the conversation. You know, “my face is still blue, and the latest CT scan showed that I was losing tissue in my lungs. What other testing can we do to figure out what is going on?” is exactly where you should redirect the conversation.
  6. Make a list of your symptoms and track them in a journal or on a calendar. Document stuff and then contact your health care provider (email works great!) with your concerns and the symptoms that you are noticing. Specific data helps a lot, and the written record makes you more credible and your health provider more accountable.
  7. Do not let a medical health professional dismiss or disparage you. Kick them to the curb and get another. On the other hand, don’t go doctor shopping to get the diagnosis that you want; that is not productive for you or anyone else involved in your daily struggles.
  8. Ask your physicians to communicate with each other and make sure that they include your primary care physician in any messaging.
  9. Remember to be kind to others: your doctors, the nurses, your family, your friends, and yourself.
  10. DON’T PANIC!!! at any time. Remember, feeling powerless and not knowing what is happening is stressful. Learn everything that you can, do everything that you can, and then sleep well at night. Hugs to anyone who finds this meaningful.
More lavender for my garden!

There. Those are the best, most excellent lessons that I learned this year. Today I am out of the serious flare of the winter and feeling pretty darn great. I am on steroids, and my immunosuppressant drug’s dose has been doubled; I feel more like myself than I have in a couple of years. I headed out on errands this afternoon, bought a Starbucks, and signed up for a Tour de Fleece team at my local yarn shop. I bought some new lavender plants that I am going to put into the ground this evening and I am cleaning up the spinning wheel to see if I can get some paco-vicuna spun next month before my steroids get stopped.

I have some really serious conditions that carry a significant risk of a poor outcome. And yet, I feel a little like an imposter as I laugh and interact with other people that I encounter. The man at the drive-through window at Starbucks traded cat photos with me. The lady at the yarn store and I laughed and talked about spinning wheel misbehaviors; are the wheels worse if you name them? Behind the mask, I am still me, the old me; I may have scleroderma, but it doesn’t have me. I am kind of the poster child for what an invisible illness looks like, and that’s why there is this campaign today to “Know Scleroderma.”

Those serious conditions that I mentioned… they are complications of scleroderma, but they happen for other reasons, too. Some are rare, but some are not. Knowing about scleroderma can help with research efforts into these other conditions (sadly, some are now more common because of Covid long haulers), and perhaps the lessons I have learned will help others in their efforts to secure empowerment and medical treatment.

This is World Scleroderma Day.

Shine Like a Sunflower!

Hannah and the CoalBear: Caturday, 6/25/22

Hi. CoalBear here.

I’ve been entertaining the Mother of Cats all day because, frankly, she is in a slump.

Well, now that I think of it, she should be in a slump. The only day this week she was frisky was Tuesday and look at what she did to me!!

She took me to the vet!!!

People, this was the most horrible thing that has ever happened to me. I got stuffed into the carrying crate and before I knew it, I was in the car. We ended up in a strange building with other people and DOGS and I kept crying, and the Mother of Cats just ignored me and took me to a little room where I had to COME OUT OF THE CRATE!!!!! I got weighed, physically cathandled by a strange lady, and then there were the SHOTS that I absolutely did not deserve because I am the best boy ever. You want to hear the worst thing about all of this…. Hannah exercised her right to refuse and didn’t have to go the vet. I think that she was laughing when we got back home again.

Okay, back to the week. The Mother of Cats is taking lots and lots of new pills now and parts of her don’t feel good because of the side effects (let me tell you about the side effects of those SHOTS!) so I am doing my best to be cute.

She finished her little quilt and hung it up on the wall behind her knitting chair.

The Mother of Cats used clear plastic push pins to secure the tops and corners of the quilt. I have been pulling the pins out of the bottom of the quilt and taking them upstairs to play with. I left both of them on the bathroom floor where she would be sure to find them this morning so she can put them back into the quilt again. Wasn’t that good of me?

I’ve also been trying to help her with her knitting, but she seems to be in a slump. She isn’t knitting much, and the stuff she has going is… boring.

Do you see how boring this knitting is? The pink blob is a sweater… maybe. The blue is going to be a pair of socks someday, and that pastel smish of funny colors will someday be a hat. Where are the cat toys? Hello? How can I be cute and entertaining if I don’t have all the toys in the world…

Although, I think that I am pretty darn cute with the toys I have now!!!

Well, I guess that is all for now. It is almost time for the baby bunny to come out in the back yard. Show time!

Mateo the CoalBear

Notes from the Mother of Cats:

  • I did get Hannah into the crate at least three times, but she was too strong for me and managed to push her way back out before I could get it zipped closed. She has another appointment next month and I’ll try some new strategies.
  • I’m in the middle of a big drug push to get my lung disease under control; I am breathing much, much better and I have more energy by far than I did a couple of months ago. The downside is… side effects. My doctors are running frequent blood tests to monitor my progress, adding more drugs to control symptoms that are concerning, and so far, things are going well, but I am pretty much homebound with pain, blurred vision, and dizziness. Two more weeks of the steroid push to go and then I start to get tapered off. Yay! I’m dealing with a lot of tendon pain as my immunosuppressant dose is doubled, but that has happened before and I’m hopeful that there is an end in sight.
  • What type of side effects, you ask? I gained 12 pounds in two days and my blood sugar soared into the high 100s. Opps.
  • I am getting out into the garden a little and there is a new rose bush waiting for me to plant it. Someday soon, little guy.

The pictures above are my morning pills, the braces that I now am back in because of tendon pain, and my new, beautiful rose. The name of the rose is… Easy Does It!

Just the rose that I needed for the week.

The Scleroderma Chronicles: Lung Biopsy Story

Last Monday, May 2nd, was the date of my lung biopsy procedure. My pulmonologist had diagnosed me with interstitial lung disease a couple of months ago and the biopsy was required to definitively diagnose the type of ILD I had. This is kind of complicated, but the simple reason for the biopsy is that I don’t really fit the profile of the usual scleroderma ILD patient, and the treatment is expensive and somewhat risky. Biopsy time.

At 4:30am Monday morning my son drove me through the rainy dark to the hospital where I was going to be admitted for the surgery. I had on my new raspberry clogs for good luck, and I was exhausted after being up most of the night completing pre-op tasks at home. I was fighting off a sense of impending disaster…

Image retrieved online from Wikipedia Commons at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Respiratory_failure

The day I met with the surgeon he drew a funky little drawing on his white board to explain what he was going to do. Check out the diagram above: your right lung is actually different from the left with more tissue and three lobes. My surgeon planned to use special instruments guided by a tiny video camera (VATS) to go through my chest wall and get the tissue samples. This is a minimally invasive procedure that will only take a few minutes. The catch: the right lung will be deflated before he takes the samples.

Atelectasis is the medical term for a collapsed lung. Both of my lungs were experiencing incomplete atelectasis at the time of my last CT scan, and I’d been getting steadily worse all April. I was a little concerned, but I trusted that all would work out fine in the end. I was prepped, bundled up, and rolled off to surgery. There was the most fantastical robotic surgery machine in there, but before I even got a great look at it, I was on the table, a mask was put over my face and I was gone…

… and I emerged from unconsciousness at the bottom of a rugby scrum with all these faces looking down at me. I was in pain, a lot of pain, and I couldn’t breathe at all. The muscles on the right side of my back were seized up and cramped in what felt like Charlie horses, and I was thrashing around as I tried to get someone to rub on my back muscles. The rugby players in masks (I was later told that there were 8 of them) were attempting to hold me down as they put hot packs under my back, removed my oxygen cannula, and placed a larger oxygen mask over my face. “Do you remember the Xray?” one of them asked. Oh. That’s what set off the muscle cramps. My oxygen was below 75% even on highest oxygen flow available in the recovery room. I got transferred to the ICU.

That right lung refused to reinflate. I couldn’t be given any pain medications or fluids until my oxygen levels came up. New doctors began to arrive and talked to me. To be clear, talking set off coughing and was very painful. I just wanted someone to help me, not talk to me! A pulmonologist arrived to doctorsplain my disease to me and informed me that he was changing some of the drugs used to treat my lung and heart conditions. I told him that I didn’t know him, he couldn’t make any changes to my treatment plan without talking to my doctors, and that I needed him to do something right away to handle my immediate situation (I was in acute respiratory failure). He argued about contacting my doctors. I insisted.

I think that I deserve a huge gold star for standing up for myself while in extremis.

I was placed onto a high flow oxygen therapy machine within minutes and my oxygen levels came up.

I kind of look like I was underneath a rugby scrum, huh. That machine delivers heated water vapor and oxygen at the unbelievable rate of 60 liters/minutes. My oxygen came up into the low 90s on the machine and I finally received oxycodone. Yay!!! The last oxygen number on the monitor before I fell asleep was 94%.

The next day they got me up into a chair (more oxycodone!) and I started respiratory therapy to get the lung working again. On Wednesday my chest tube came out and during the day the flow rate on the machine was reduced until I could come off it.

Day three in the ICU. I am off the high flow machine and finally using a normal cannula. I’m still on 15 liters/minute of oxygen at this point.

That annoying pulmonologist came by every single day that I was in the ICU; my doctors had called him back! After talking to them he made some med changes (and told me that it a shared decision) and his manner completely transformed. The physician’s assistant who removed my chest tube told me that she had also read the care notes with all the data, email traffic, and decision-making by my rheumatologist/pulmonologist/cardiologist team. She was struck by the interdisciplinary care that I was receiving and seemed a little wistful and envious.

Another gold star for the team!!

Over the next two days I was slowly titrated down on my oxygen while doing my lung expanding exercises without fail. Late in the morning on Friday I finally escaped.

I put on my raspberry clogs, black leggings, a little black top, and my raspberry-colored down vest. “How cute you are!” exclaimed the nurse. My son drove me home through the late morning light along streets lined with newly leafed trees. While I was in the ICU the world had turned green.

No matter how lifeless and barren things seem over the winter, spring always comes with the promise of fresh starts and new life. I still trust that all will work out fine in the end.

Hannah is so glad to have me home again.

Now we just have to wait for the biopsy results.

Those Crazy Days of April, 2022

April went by in a blur for me. I entered the month feeling pretty sick. I had just had an appointment with my pulmonologist, and he had referred me to a surgeon for a lung biopsy. Well, not what I was looking for, but necessary to definitively diagnose what type of interstitial lung disease I had. There are several types, and the treatment plans for each are different. The surgery was set for May 2nd, an entire month away. Annoyed, upset by the wait, pretty darn sick, it was hard to wait all through April.

April rose to the challenge. Never was there such an ill-behaved month. For some bizarre reason my Amazon account reset to Spanish. Do you know how hard it is track orders and make changes to your account settings in a language that you don’t read well? Then email in Italian began arriving. Someone tried to hack into my PayPal account, setting off a flurry of new password and security settings on my part. Then my Facebook feed was flooded with pictures of… owls.

Umm… the universe wants me to learn a new language? Maybe the next BioGeek post should be about owls? This is really strange. April was getting off to a rocky start…

I kept struggling with my health as the month advanced, taking care of essential items in preparation for months of difficulty ahead if I was moved into a 6-month course of chemo. I filed my taxes. I took Matao in for his vaccinations. I filed the paperwork to be excused from jury duty. I got the last vaccine I needed (shingles) before the surgery. A neighbor installed the new outdoor lighting that I had purchased before Christmas, and another neighbor will arrange with her grandkids to take care of my lawn. I ordered more oxygen cannulas, and in keeping with April craziness, 4 cases of tubing arrived instead. I made arrangements to be tested for a portable oxygen unit… first appointment is in June. April, you are killing me here! One of the side windows of the car shattered without warning. I continued to get sicker. I was sick and tired of April, too!

My wild bunny moved into the front yard where I could see it each time I went out of the garage. Very used to me now, it never runs away when I go outside. Bunny support on sad days.

As the month wore on, I began to sleep a lot. Like 10-12 hours a night. I had to use oxygen during the daytime. I was losing weight. I wrote my doctors an email towards the middle of the month telling them that I felt that I was declining, and that I was worried it was taking too long to begin treatment. I was scheduled for a series of additional tests and had appointments with the pulmonologist and the cardiologist. Oh, good, April. Now I have to drive all over town without portable oxygen.

How to respond to a worsening situation that I have no control over? I bought happy new shoes in an outrageous color.

These are the shoes that are going to walk me into the hospital!!

And then I cast on new socks that would do the shoes proud.

This yarn’s name is “Squad Goals” and dyed by Hue Loco.

The results from the heart, lung, and kidney testing came back and they all showed that… I was getting worse. My doctors conferenced back and forth, debated different treatment modifications, and came to the consensus opinion that I should have the biopsy done May 2nd. I got that email late on Friday before the surgery. Checking the physician notes attached to my last appointment I found the full text of all the test results and the email chain of discussion between my doctors. I felt very lucky: what a great team! How good I feel that the decisions about drugs and treatment is being arrived at through this interdisciplinary collaboration by my doctors, who have chosen to make this all visible to me. Knowing that, however, did not change the fact that the upcoming surgery is now a little risky.

So, I cleaned the house, did laundry, paid the bills, and got in groceries. I planted flowers in the front tubs and along the walk. I also cast on some baby booties for my next-door neighbor who just brought home a new little one. This pattern, extremely versatile, is our family recipe passed down through three generations over almost three quarters of a century. It is the same as this one posted on Ravelry.

And just like that, the month was done. I had made 2 hats, 4 PICC line covers, 2 pairs of socks, and used up 3.38 skeins of yarn. I read 6 books. I did work on a sweater, but since I’m now in the colorwork portion of the knitting I put it on hiatus to await better days.

Goodbye April, you crazy, bad-boy of a month! I want you to stand in the corner and think about what you have done!! I expect a whole new attitude when I see you next year.

Hannah and the CoalBear: Mateo does Caturday.

Hi. I’m Mateo (AKA the CoalBear).

I’m almost 10 months old now. What do you think of my ruff?

The Mother of Cats isn’t feeling well today so I am hanging around with her on her bed. I’m helping her write on her computer right now! I’m such a good boy!

I’ve been bringing toys onto the bed so she can watch me play with them.
I chewed on the palm plant downstairs to keep up my energy.
I then helped the Mother of Cats with her knitting. I’m such a great helper!!
I groomed my sister so she would let me sleep on the cat tree with her.
I’m the best CoalBear ever!!

Happy Caturday everyone!!

May you all have an excellent day!

Notes from the Mother of Cats:

I’ve gone off my immunosuppressant drug so that I can get my Covid booster on Monday. Sigh. There was a big pressure change yesterday with a cold front that triggered some symptoms along with the predictable flare of my disease that has me back in bed for the weekend.

I’ve been in lockdown for two years and I desperately want the booster because my next round of medical appointments starts in another week. I also want to start knitting with my new-found groups, too. I want some of my life back!!

Please think of me and the other people in a situation like my own (high risk, immunosuppressed or immunocompromised, and struggling with chronic conditions that complicates their lives on the best of days) when you are out in public.

And wear your mask!

ps: I threw out the palm last night. It wasn’t a match for the CoalBear and I was afraid it would make him sick. Next up: a Boston fern.