The Scleroderma Chronicles: World Scleroderma Day, 2021

Here we are again… World Scleroderma Day.

I’ve written about scleroderma on this date for several years now. I just went back and read what I wrote last year and decided that I did a pretty good job. I talked about getting diagnosed, the complications that are being caused by my disease, and what that means in my life. Here’s that post if you would like to check out my take on things last year.

This is one crazy-ass disease and it certainly has complicated my life. In the year since I wrote that last post I have hung in there (hey, staying home for a year on oxygen slowly improving was actually good for me) and then emerged from strict lockdown to get lots of testing to try to sort out what is the cause of my blue-lipped status and the source of other little issues that I have going on. While thinking about what to write today I thought of a few things that I haven’t written about before and some things that are new since the last post.

The correct name for the type of scleroderma that I have is limited systemic sclerosis. Systemic means that every part of my body is being impacted by this disease, and the word sclerosis means that scarring is happening in tissues all over my body. What’s happening to me is not obvious to the outside viewer, but it is insidious and ongoing all the same. Somehow, by some mechanism that isn’t clear, my systemic sclerosis is being driven by antibodies that I’m producing that react with the centromeres of my cells.

What’s a centromere? I’m shocked, shocked I tell you, that you just don’t know that! Seriously, the centromere is that little place in the middle of a chromosome that can be seen when cells are getting ready to divide. This is a little tricky because the only time we can see chromosomes is when cells are getting ready to divide and they have already copied themselves: the little pinched waist in the middle of the chromosome where they are connected is where the centromere is located.

Got that?

This image belongs to the NIH; as a taxpaying citizen I hope that it is okay for me to use it here. 🙂

Somehow something happened to a protein located in the centromere area of the chromosomes in my body that made it look “different” and my immune system responded by making antibodies against that protein. The antibodies that are produced are called “anti-centromere antibodies” and their presence is highly suggestive of my form of systemic sclerosis. The alternative explanation is that my immune system just went berserk, decided to attack my own cells, and began making these antibodies on its own. I personally think that something changed and then the antibodies were made as a response. My money is on a virus.

It really doesn’t matter all that much since, once the immune system is triggered, the immune response can’t be turned off and one day you are sat down in some rheumatologist’s office and carefully told about what is happening to you and what to expect in the future. Your skin will get thick. Your blood vessels will be so damaged that they will thicken and spasm shutting off blood flow to parts of your body unexpectedly. The scarring tissue will build up in your digestive tract and damage the smooth muscles that you need to move food along. Your kidneys will lose function. Your nerves will be damaged. Your lungs need to protected since they are especially vulnerable to damage from accidently inhaled stomach acid. If your disease flares badly enough you can develop autoimmune pneumonia. Your tendons, muscles, and joints are all in trouble. You are in trouble. The damage will progress and there is no cure.

“This is really serious,” one of those early doctors told me. “This is like a diagnosis of cancer, but of course, some cancers can be cured…”

Well, shoot. Good thing there are drugs to help control symptoms and to slow the progression of the disease by dialing down the immune system.

Yay for drugs!! I am on drugs to shut down my stomach acid production (my lungs are doing pretty well) and on drugs to crush my immune system into submission. I’m on anti-inflammatories to control other cellular pathways activated by those ill-behaved antibodies. I get steroid injections to help my damaged joints and inflamed tendons. I have strict dietary limitations. I do lots of physical therapy. I’m on oxygen overnight to keep my red blood cell count in a normal range. I dress in layers to help control the spasms of my circulatory system, a phenomenon called Raynaud’s. I knit almost every day to keep my fingers from stiffening up and contracting. I now have a shiny purple cane to help me walk.

Every day is a challenge, but I am fine.

So what is new this year?

Scleroderma has damaged my heart. They are still testing to clarify exactly what is going on, but so far they have established that there is scarring in the heart muscle that is making my heart “stiff” and that somehow I developed a hole in my heart. There are suggestions of pulmonary hypertension, but I need more testing for a definitive diagnosis. No wonder I turn blue in the face and pant when I walk.

Oh, yeah, there is also a pandemic going on.

One of the greatest ironies of the last year is that serious cases of Covid-19 share similarities with the clinical symptoms of scleroderma crisis. Immune system-mediated pneumonia caused by an overreacting immune system is a hallmark of both conditions. Then there is this… Remember those drugs that I take to crush my immune system into submission? I take two drugs for that purpose. One of them, hydroxychloroquine, was (irresponsibly) politicized by influential individuals early in the pandemic and therefore became short in supply; my muscles and joints immediately rebelled when my supply lapsed early in the lockdown. The other drug that I take, mycophenolate mofetil, is linked to poor response to the Covid-19 vaccine. I am vaccinated and I am making anti-Covid antibodies, but since my total antibody count is very low my doctors aren’t sure I can fight off a Covid-19 infection fast enough to stay out of the hospital. I’m advised to continue to mask and isolate because… blue face, hole in heart, stuff like that…

For me, lockdown goes on.

So, here are the takeaway messages from this post. Be kind. There are illnesses that are really debilitating that you can’t see when you look at that person walking into a store from a handicapped parking spot. Don’t be dismissive of conditions with funny names that you’ve never heard of before. I know that it is hard to understand conditions that are beyond your experience and that you can’t really see, but take a moment to let someone tell you about their illness and the daily challenges that they embrace. If you meet a person with an autoimmune disease, they deserve a hug. If they have scleroderma you should give them two hugs! Be understanding of people who are still wearing a mask in public; perhaps they are braver than you can imagine.

Today is World Scleroderma Day.

Go Team Teal!!

Note: If you would like to know about different types of scleroderma you can learn about them here.

The Scleroderma Chronicles: World Scleroderma Day

Today is World Scleroderma Day. Tonight the Niagara Falls will be illuminated blue and white in recognition of the day. All this month (June) there have been walks and outreach to raise awareness of this disease and to raise money for scleroderma research, and scleroderma patients all over the world have been urged to post pictures of their faces (and smiles) to made this disease more real and relatable.

Rather than flash my smile I have chosen to show this picture of me and MacKenzie, wrapped in handknits, fighting my way through a flare one frozen January. Good times! See the light in the background? It reminds me that every flare comes to an end.

The purpose of this day is to try to raise awareness of an illness that is mostly invisible and relatively unknown.

So what is scleroderma? It is a rare autoimmune disease that is a member of the rheumatic diseases family. The name “scleroderma” means hard (sclero) skin (derma), which is the most visible symptom. Scleroderma is the general name that is applied to a group of connective tissue diseases that may target only the skin, or the skin plus internal organs, or just the internal organs themselves. The words that are used to describe my type of scleroderma (limited systemic sclerosis) are rare, chronic, progressive, disabling, and possibly life threatening. This is a lot to wrap one’s head around, so I’ve decided to break it down.

Rare: Here in the United States the CDC has defined a disease with fewer than 200,000 patients as “rare”. Systemic sclerosis, with about 1-2 diagnosed people for every 100,000 citizens fits the bill. To be rare means your illness struggles for research and treatment funding as the patient population is small and almost no one is personally impacted by the disease in the general population. Hence, Scleroderma Awareness Month and World Scleroderma Day. Thank you, Niagara Falls!!

Auto-Immune Disease: The immune system, designed to protect us from foreign invaders like pathogens,  is attacking some of the components of normal cells in scleroderma patients. The exact components can be identified using the antibodies of scleroderma patients and they are essential proteins found in the nucleus of the cell. My antibodies are attacking a protein found at the kinetochore of dividing chromosomes. I can’t help but wonder what the heck has happened here that I ended up with antibodies like these? I also eventually wondered if my cancer risk is increased since there is something off with this critical structure used in cell division (it is).

Connective Tissue: I used to try to explain this type of tissue to my AP Biology students. Connective tissue… well… it connects. It is what holds your bones together to form the skeleton. It gives support and stretchiness to your skin. It is involved in all the organs of your body, and holds the organs in systems together. It is essential to organize your muscles. In systemic sclerosis, all of this tissue can be involved in an inflammatory attack of the immune system and scarring occurs. Skin gets thick; hands curl, joints won’t bend, smiles  twist and faces harden. Muscles and joints hurt. The smooth muscle in the digestive tract can be so damaged that organs don’t work right. Blood vessels are damaged and spasm, cutting off circulation to extremities and organs. The heart can get scarred. Scarred lungs prevent oxygen passage. Scleroderma, invisible to the outside viewer, can be devastating to the patient.

Vascular tissue damage causes circulation loss to my fingers and toes (Raynaud’s Phenomenon) which I fight by wearing fingerless mitts and wool socks. Works great and the Zen of knitting brings its own benefits.

Chronic: There is no cure, and it never ends. There are, however, treatments for individual impacted organs that are really helpful.

Progessive: Damage accumulates over time and conditions worsen. My doctors are monitoring my kidneys, heart, lungs and GI system. So far I am doing pretty well, but my GI tract is taking the most damage.

Disabling: Yep. It is getting really hard to walk, and I just don’t fit all that well into the world anymore since my diet is very restrictive, air conditioning isn’t my friend, and sunshine makes me go into a flare. Right now I don’t need supplemental oxygen, but if that comes back it will further restrict my independence.

Life-threatening: It took me months to think this one through, but eventually I did google “life expectancy of systemic sclerosis” and discovered that for me, with my treatment plan and risk factors, survival rate is about 75% for 10 years after diagnosis. Overall the death rate of scleroderma is 50%. Oh. Now I know. Who wants to live forever?

This week I wrote a letter to my congressman asking him to sponsor a bill that would fund research into fibrotic diseases like scleroderma and cystic fibrosis. I haven’t heard back, but maybe if he has heard of one of these diseases or knows someone impacted by scleroderma he will do it.

That’s why we do World Scleroderma Day.

Science and the Scleroderma Girl: The AP Therapy Rant

Antibiotic Protocol is an alternative medicine therapy for autoimmune disease. It certainly has a following. Check this out.  There is more information on it at the Arthritis Foundation. It seems to be loosely associated with “Leaky Gut” as it links chronic autoimmune illness to microbial sources originating in our intestines. The shaky model and vague language involved in leaky gut has landed it on the pseudoscience list at Wikipedia.

This has been a really hard post to put together. I have all these little memories and reactions rolling around in my mind, and I struggle to link them together in a meaningful way. Here are some of the things that have happened and my gut reaction (did you see what I did there?) to them:

  • I have a friend with lupus. She has been struggling for years, is on disability, and is clearly in trouble. She is losing weight, her hair is falling out; she is in the care of a nutritionist who has her on severe dietary restrictions and antibiotics to treat her condition. She eats no dairy, gluten, meat, alcohol, or sugar, and continues to take her antibiotics without fail. She is not getting better. My heart breaks every time I see her.
  • My dermatologist placed me on doxycycline (one of the antibiotics used to treat scleroderma in AP Therapy) right after my diagnosis. A year later my lung disease was moving so quickly that I was actually referred to palliative care. I stopped the doxycycline, my rheumatologist boosted the immunosuppressive drug dose,  I was given a new drug for my vascular disease, these new drugs kicked in, and today my lungs look great. Good bye, palliative care!
  • I visit an online support group for scleroderma patients where some people are just devoted to antibiotic therapy. They can be very aggressive in promoting their message and have even private messaged me trying to convince me to switch treatment protocols. Huh? This is kind of extreme. I’m always wary of fanatics because it is more about “winning” and gaining converts…
  • Cat face.
    The Mother of Cats has an active early warning system for fanatics. There is no evidence on Earth that will change their minds…

    So, I already have my back up about AP Therapy. The diagnostic antibodies that I have are to a specific region on my chromosomes (centromeres and kinetochores) that is involved in cell division. Bacteria have their genetic machinery organized very differently from me; why would the defining antibody in my illness be towards an antigen not found in bacteria? (Goodbye leaky gut… it was nice to know you!) That doesn’t mean that I can’t have the medical condition of increased intestinal permeability; correlation doesn’t necessarily mean causation. It also doesn’t mean that antibiotic use doesn’t help some people as the drugs also have anti-inflammatory and cartilage protecting properties, and there is research that shows it helps some patients with rheumatoid arthritis.

Here’s the deal: there are better drugs and treatment options. If you have a mild form of the disease, maybe AP Therapy is what you need. On the other hand, systemic sclerosis is a potentially fatal disease and if it is advancing rapidly the correct response is to go big: use the drugs that have the highest success rate. I feel like I’m a walking poster child for the success of current treatment options. The three drug cocktail (Myfortic, Plaquenil, Losartan)that my doctors are maintaining me on has reversed my lung and heart damage.

Crap, do I sound like a fanatic? Darn. I was worried that this would happen.

I told you, this is a hard post to write. Let me just say I would never, never PM someone insisting that they need to change their treatment plan. Who am I to project my reality onto another person?

What I really mean to say is to think like a scientist: collect data, keep a symptom log, ask questions, assemble a team of doctors to help you, and pursue treatment options that have solid research-backed results that you are comfortable with. Keep collecting data, and don’t be afraid to change if things aren’t going well. There is no best one-size-fits-all treatment plan, but play the odds that are the highest until you get better information. If what you are doing is working, keep going!!

Tomorrow is World Scleroderma Day.

This is a hard, hard disease. All of us with this disease face hard choices.

Hugs to all.