The Continuing Adventures of Life with RA (2014 Edition)

Much has changed since I last posted, so here’s a quick attempt to catch you up:

  • Xeljanz is officially out. After a few months of testing, my rheumatologist and I came to the conclusion late last year that it was, in fact, the source of my rapid weight gain, so I had to stop taking it. This was a bittersweet day, as you can imagine. I was happy to finally know the source of the weight gain, but sad to say goodbye to the biologic that was finally working to slow the damage from RA.
  • Rituxan is in. In late December/early January, I had my first set of Rituxan infusions. Mostly, they went fine, and took me back to a manageable disease level from approaching near constant use of my walker and breaking out the wheelchair for longer excursions. I experienced some tachycardia, a wicked headache, and a few other symptoms sporadically for 48 hours after the first infusion. For those of you who have taken Rituxan, or researched it, you know that the 6-8 hour, then 3-4 hour infusion processes are time-consuming. Of course, it’s worth it to get some relief. I’m hoping it’s really working, because after this, I’m officially out of biologic options.
  • I’ve added Eastern medicine to the mix. In February, I started seeing a Doctor of Chinese Medicine/Homeopath/Kineseologist/Acupuncturist. Yes, she has lots of degrees and lots of expertise in Eastern medicine. It’s a whole different approach than what I’ve used before, and I love it. She’s helped me with my continuing digestion problems by finding another food intolerance, this time to dairy. She’s helped me work through the chronic fatigue, both resulting from my autoimmune issues and from the side effects of my Western medicines. I have acupuncture sessions every other week, and even while I continue to struggle with RA, I notice my general physical and mental health improving. I am even losing some of the Xeljanz weight, despite my continued use of Medrol.
  • My RA is more active than ever. Despite the positive effects of Rituxan and my progress with Eastern medicine, my disease is extremely active. My most recent blood work
    Waiting for Rituxan....3 weeks to go!

    Waiting for Rituxan….3 weeks to go!

    showed high CRP and SED rates, even 2.5 months after Rituxan. Of course, I don’t need blood work to tell me that my disease is active. My joints tell me every day when I can barely move them. My body tells me every day when it begs to go back to bed. So, I wait. Generally, Rituxan infusions occur every 4-6 months. My next one is scheduled 3 weeks from now (5 months after my first). Tick tock, tick tock.

I feel grateful that, over the past few months, I’ve learned much more about my body through my experiences with Eastern medicine. Now that I have so many of my tertiary issues under control (food intolerances, digestion, even some of the fatigue unrelated to RA), I feel hopeful that I’ll see the full effects of Rituxan when I get my next set of infusions in a few weeks. Spring is a new season; a time of rebirth following the long winter. After almost 5 years with this disease, I’m ready for mine.

Wishing you a spring full of new discoveries and a rebirth of your own…

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Ups and Downs

Xeljanz. It’s been working well on my RA symptoms for the last few months.  During that time, I’ve been squeezing as much life out of every day as I can. Quite frankly, I had forgotten how to balance that kind of “busy-ness”. I definitely overdo it some days, and I pay the price for that, but after the last few years, it feels good to have the energy to even make that choice. If you know me, you know I’ll err on the side of “too much” vs. “too little” whenever I have the chance. For the most part, it’s very much been an “up” time.

So, I didn’t notice at first when my weight started creeping up.  Until my clothes no longer fit.  Until, for the first time in my life (not counting when I was pregnant with my son), I was gaining in my stomach. Usually, my hips, bootie, and thighs are my problem areas.  It was weird.  And it didn’t stop. It hasn’t stopped.  It keeps getting worse. I have also developed horrible GI symptoms (I’ll spare you the details :)), worsening fatigue, and some other odd symptoms unlike those I usually feel with RA.

Like most health issues we spoonies experience, it’s not simple.  I’ve seen an endocrinologist.  She diagnosed me with probable Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, though my numbers are still barely in the normal range.  I’m on a low dose of Synthroid, which has already helped my fatigue. I’ll go back regularly for blood work (because we all need more of that, right?), and she’s looking at other causes for my new symptoms.  It’s just hard to know if something is amiss in my endocrine system, because I take Medrol every day. So, she’s making educated guesses. Comforting.

In the mean time, the lack of definitive answers combined with my continuing symptoms have earned me another specialist. That’s right…I now have a gastroenterologist! Pretty soon, I’ll have collected the whole set of doctors. I wonder what the prize is when I do! 🙂 He’s also running tests; blood work, of course, and next week, my very first colonoscopy. I’ll write about that lovely experience after, and we’ll see if I get some answers.

My rheumatologist did find a trend in my weight gain though, and it goes back to Xeljanz.  Though it’s not listed in the literature as a side effect, she noted that my weight gain started, very slowly, the month after I went on the drug.  Over the first 3.5 months, I gained 8-10 pounds,  Then, my weight took off like a rocket. I’ve been gaining 5-7 pounds every month for the last four. Since it was the only change in my medication during this time, it seems likely that the RA drug that’s helping me may be causing a very serious side effect. Guess how we find out? I’m off Xeljanz for 45 days, to see what happens to my weight.  If it stabilizes, or starts to come down, I will not be allowed to take Xeljanz again. It was the last biologic available to me — the only one I hadn’t tried — so according to my rheumy, my next option is clinical trials.

Today, I used a cane for the first time in 2013.  My pain levels are so high that I have insomnia (“painsomnia”, a fellow spoonie called it once. I love that!). I’m not sure what the future holds in terms of my mobility. What goes up must come down, I guess.

I tell this story for two reasons.  First, I promised many of you updates on my progress with Xeljanz.  Things have been mostly going well, or so I thought, until this setback. The final jury on my experience is still out though, and I’m not giving up hope. Neither should you. Second, this blog is about awareness.  These diseases are complex, and most of us work with teams of specialists to proactively manage our health.  It’s like another job, in many ways.  Spoonies are superheroes, beating the odds to live their fullest lives every day.  Especially during Invisible Awareness Week, I wanted to recognize this wonderful community.  Here’s to more ups than downs for all of you in the coming weeks and months!

I’m Officially A Guinea Pig!

If you read my last post, you know that over the last 2.5 years, I’ve failed a number of different biologics.  TNF blockers were my last option, and as it turns out, I’m allergic to them.  So, it was looking like I was going to go back to Orencia, which was the best of the worst.

All that changed on November 7th when a new biologic (and the first ever available in pill form) was approved by the FDA.  It’s called Xeljanz.  As of yesterday, my insurance company approved me, so I will be the first patient in my doctor’s practice to start this new treatment.

I’ll admit that I’m more than a little apprehensive about starting a drug that’s brand new to the U.S. market.  However, I’m excited about the prospect of having something new to try, just when it seemed I was out of options – and would be forced to live with the joint damage I’m currently experiencing.

My pills should be here tomorrow, and I’ll be reporting on what happens and how it works as I go.  Wish me luck in the lab!

Pharmaceutical Roulette

 

When you are diagnosed with a chronic disease like Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA), you quickly learn that your life is destined to include medicine.  For many of us, lots of medicine.  Back in 2010, I bought a “days of the week” pill sorter, and I’ve adapted to the weekly ritual of filling it, counting and sorting each medication.  Believe me, when you are battling RA, your hands cannot afford to open 10-15 pill bottles twice a day.

My trusty pill container. I never leave home without it!

I’ll admit that it was tough to adjust to a life of medicine.  What’s more difficult though, is the realization that successful treatment for my illness, and many others, is very much a trial-and-error process.  Until we experience serious illness, many of us believe, naively, that our doctors have the answers.  At least, I know that’s what I thought.  You get sick, you go to the doctor, they diagnose, they prescribe medicine, you take it, and you feel better.  Right?  Wrong.

I am three years into my RA journey.  I see my rheumatologist monthly, and have regular visits with a pain management specialist, a hematologist, a neurologist, an ophthalmologist, and a cardiologist – all for related symptoms and issues.  In other words, I am not neglecting my treatment.  Regardless, my doctors and I still do not have a working treatment plan.  I have continually active disease, joint damage, bone erosions, and nothing (so far) is stopping the march of RA and its autoimmune friends through my body.  What follows is a chronicle of my game of pharmaceutical roulette.

January 2010: Diagnosis
Med Count: 6

For immediate relief, I was put on steroids.  Medrol, to be exact.  I’ve stayed on it for almost 4 years, fluctuating between 4mg and 32mg a day.  Currently, I’m at 14mg a day, which is still far too high for a maintenance dose.  This drug does nothing to stop the disease.  It simply reduces inflammation and pain.  It also carries lovely side effects like weight gain (check), moon face (check), excessive  sweating (check), and adrenal insufficiency (check).  As my friend Dennis would say, it’s a gem. 🙂 But, it keeps me mostly functional, so I keep taking it.  Of course, the goal is to find something that works on the disease  itself, so I can come off my maintenance dose, especially given the long list of side effects.

At the same time, my doctor started me on an anti-malarial called Plaquenil, a common treatment for RA.  She also found that I had extremely low levels of vitamin D (common in those with autoimmune disease), and put me on supplement therapy.  The hope was that these, taken in combination with Celebrex for pain, would begin to control my disease.

The count is six, by the way, because I was already on a beta blocker for my inappropriate sinus tachycardia and Restasis for chronic dry eye.

March 2010: Injection Time!
Med Count: 9

Unfortunately, this combination did not work.  So, I was introduced to a class of drugs called disease modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs).  I started with methoxtrexate, which is the gold standard for RA treatment.  I started taking the injectable form of this in March 2010.  It offered a bit of improvement, though my disease continued to be active.

Methotrexate has this nasty habit of removing folic acid from your system, so at the same time, I was put on a prescription dose to replace it.  By this time, I had been on Medrol for three months, and since long-term steroid use can cause osteoporosis, I began taking Fosamax to prevent that side effect.  So far, I have only osteopenia, so I guess it’s working.

June 2010: IVs…Really?
Med Count: 10

When methotrexate alone was not effective, my doctor added my first biologic treatment, a monthly IV infusion of Orencia.  It should be noted that I was not coming off anything I was on at this point.  This was all about adding to what I was taking, trying to find the right biologic and combination of the rest to get my disease under control.

The selection of Orencia was largely a guess.  I had some symptoms that made me high risk for developing multiple sclerosis, which kept my doctor from suggesting the most popular class of biologics.  This was the next best choice, so we gave it a shot.  For the next 6-8 months, I did improve, but probably only 5-10%.  Even with all of the meds I was taking, my doctor increased my steroid dose every few months, to manage my swelling and pain.

At this time, she also prescribed my first more intense pain reliever, called Tramadol.  This provided some additional relief, and on this cocktail, I was able to continue working.  I mostly collapsed every evening and on weekends, but I survived.

Nov 2010: Narcotics Time
Med Count: 11

When I got to the point that I was taking multiple doses of Tramadol every day, my doctor gave me my first narcotic, Vicodin.  We hoped that, with another steroid increase and some stronger pain meds when I needed them, I might need fewer pain meds overall.  Vicodin didn’t help much, so I rarely used it.

March 2011: Allergies
Med Count: 13/12

Eight months into my treatment with Orencia, my disease remained active.  So, my doctor added sulfasalazine and another DMARD called leflunomide.  I handled the first just fine, but had a very bad reaction to leflunomide.  As soon as I added it to my regimen, I was very ill; unable to keep down a meal.  So, that was out as fast as it was in.

It was also this month that I discovered my gluten intolerance.  Minimizing the gluten in my diet has been quite helpful to my digestive system, and has helped me pay very close attention to every ingredient of every food I buy and eat, which is a great thing for me and my family.

September 2011: A New Infusion
Med Count: 13

In July, my doctor and I determined that we needed to move on from Orencia.  These drugs are extremely expensive, running $2000+/month, so unfortunately, the insurance approval process can be lengthy.  Even with my insurance (which is great – I am very blessed!), it took two months to get my approval for Actemra.  Once on a new drug, it can take anywhere from 3-6 months, and sometimes longer, to know if it is working.  So the trial-and-error process is long, arduous, and ultimately, very frustrating.  When I finally began Actemra, one of the newer biologics on the market, I just hoped it would work.

In the meantime, my maintenance dose of Medrol was increased all the way to 32mg a day, in an attempt to keep me functional.  Additionally, I signed a DEA contract, yes – that’s Drug Enforcement Agency, with my doctor for a long-term prescription for Percocet.  In another post, I’ll delve into the humiliating processes required by law for chronic pain patients to get the pain relieving drugs they need.  Suffice it to say, there is substantial room for change.

January 2012: New Year, New Surprises!
Med Count: 15

Biologic drugs weaken the immune system overall, and its ability to fight infection.  After the holidays, I spent time in the hospital, in septic shock from a deadly (for me) combination of a back-to-back common cold and stomach flu.  My blood pressure was dangerously low, my heart rate was dangerously high, and my weakened immune system couldn’t fight without vasopressors administered through a central line.

Unable to move, unable to get out of bed for weeks (even before my hospital stay), I was forced to go on disability from a job I love.  My health was very, very poor, and I wanted answers.  Actemra wasn’t working, and nothing else seemed to be either.  My doctor suspected I had developed fibromyalgia on top of my RA.  When I went to Mayo Clinic for a rheumatology evaluation that month, they agreed with her.

So, I started Cymbalta and Topamax for the fibromyalgia pain, and started seeing a pain management specialist for more treatment options.

June 2012: My Body Rebels, Part 1
Meds 14

I’ve been anemic for a couple of years now, but in May, my regular blood work started showing more severe levels.  So, I got more results, and found that my red blood cells were large, and that they were being destroyed more quickly than they should, a condition called hemolytic anemia.  So, my hematologist and rheumatologist took me off one of my drugs, sulfasalazine, and I started getting additional monthly blood work to check for improvement.

July 2012: My Body Rebels, Part 2
Med Count: 13

The very next month, my liver function tests were abnormal.  So, after 2+ years on methotrexate, I had to stop taking it.  This was a difficult thing to accept, for two reasons.  I was first and foremost concerned about my liver.  I put a lot of stress on it with the medications I take, and hearing that it is behaving abnormally is worrisome.  I also knew that the drug I was giving up was one that helps many people with RA, and I worried about what it meant for my treatment plan.

Also, it was this month that I officially failed Actemra.  Aside from the fact that I now had to restart the 2 month insurance approval process, followed by the 3-6 month “will it work?” process with a new drug, I had another problem.  The remaining biologics available, and the ones most likely to work, were also the ones most risky for me.  Called tumor necrosis factor (TNF) blockers, they consist of the best known and proven biologics on the market: Enbrel, Humira, Simponi, Cimzia, and Remicade.

I had avoided these drugs because they carry a higher risk of developing multiple sclerosis.  I have a number of symptoms that make me high risk anyway, so I elected to stay away from these drugs.  However, Lora and I discussed the options, and decided, despite the risk, to try one.  My doctor documented the contraindication as well as my decision, and fully supported me.   We started Humira, as it seemed to best fit my blood work and profile.  I took a deep breath, and hoped for the best.

September 2012: Double it!
Med Count: 13

The good news was that my approval for Humira took only a week.  After a month though, it wasn’t doing much of anything.  So, my doctor doubled my dose in September, and I started weekly injections.  Within a week, I started to see real improvement in joint pain, stiffness, and fatigue.  It had been almost a year since I had felt anywhere close to this good, and I was thrilled!

October 2012: The Itchy and Scratchy Show
Med Count: 12

Well, the excitement didn’t last long.  The morning after my second weekly Humira injection, I woke up covered in hives.  I knew immediately.  It was an allergic reaction to the drug, and it was devastating.  I got into my doctor right away.  She confirmed, and got me a Medrol-Pack (extra steroids to knock out the allergic reaction in my blood), and some prescription strength Benadryl for my insane itchiness.  As far as a biologic, we decided to try Enbrel, hoping that I would have a different outcome.

My liver functions were still abnormal, so I came off Celebrex, in the hopes that would normalize things.  Otherwise, I was about to add a gastroenterologist to my list of specialists.

November 2012: The Scratching Continues
Med Count: 11

Anyone know the lucky number?

As it turns out, my body and anti-TNF biologics do not get along.  I broke out in hives after my third weekly Enbrel injection, and I’m still battling them as I write this.  I’m starting my second Medrol-Pack with these hives, and still taking anti-itch meds.  My skin feels like sandpaper, and is covered with scabs, though I try as hard as I can not to scratch.

The good news is that my liver function has returned to normal, at least for now.  But, I will not be trying further biologics from this class, which means my options are limited.  Luckily, there is a brand spanking new biologic pill, just approved by the FDA two weeks ago, called Xeljanz.  My doctor and I are meeting on Wednesday, and will be discussing whether I can try that.

I know today’s story is long, but I hope it sheds light on what those with RA face in finding a successful treatment plan.  Ultimately, my number hasn’t come up on the roulette wheel, and in terms of biologics, I’m running out of chips.  The good news is that I have the amazing support of Lora, Bear, our families, and good friends to guide me.  I am confident that by combining pharmaceuticals, healthy eating, meditation, exercise, alternative therapies, and most of all great support and a positive attitude , I will find my way to the winning number eventually.

In the spirit of this week’s holiday, thank you for making your way through my pharmaceutical journey, and for continuing to share and learn with me.  Happy Thanksgiving to you all!

Polar (Opposites) Summer…

After a whirlwind summer of contradictions, I’m finally back.  The past few months have been a perfect microcosm of life with Rheumatoid Arthritis.  Here’s what happened:

In May, these images filled my days:

That’s right. Lora and I spent a blissful two weeks cruising the Mediterranean Sea.  We explored the ruins of ancient Rome, viewed masterful Renaissance art and architecture in Florence, witnessed the world’s most famous film festival in Cannes, and enjoyed a delicious home-cooked lunch on an olive oil farm in Montenegro.  We even attended a wine tasting on our ship’s lush, green lawn, while overlooking the magical city of Venice.

Sure, I had pain.  Sure, I needed to consciously balance activity and rest each day of the trip.  Even with those limitations, though, I saw and did more than I could have possibly imagined.  Life was perfect.

Fast forward to mid-June, when I took this picture of my ankle:

Sexy, eh?  Not exactly the shape I’d like to accentuate with a pair of Manolos. June was the single worst month I’ve had since my diagnosis. I spent almost 3 weeks in a wheelchair, and 10 days in bed.  Every joint was swollen beyond recognition and I endured constant, excruciating pain, even with regular doses of narcotic pain medications.  I had no idea how I’d make it through.

In early July, I finally started feeling a little better.  When I saw my rheumatologist, she suggested that we try a new biologic (the IV infusion drug I get monthly), given that my disease remains very active.  As a result, RA is doing daily, irreversible damage to my body.  Taking her advice, I started the two month approval process for Actemra.  In two weeks, I’ll get my first dose, and by the end of 2011 (almost 2 years after my diagnosis), I may know if it is helping control my immune system.

I spent July and August working – much to the dismay of my doc, who thinks I should be on disability – and enjoying summer with those I love.  I celebrated some birthdays, and visited family in NC and MI.  Each morning began with an evaluation of my health (good day or bad).  From there, I decided what I could/could not accomplish; at work, at home, and at play.

That’s life with any serious disease: lots of ups and downs, daily unpredictability, and a long and painful treatment road.  During this crazy yet wonderful summer, I experienced all of those in spades.

Making a Difference

It was a typical Thursday afternoon. My son and I were in the car, driving home after I picked him up from school. As usual, our conversation focused on the highlights of his day. Here’s what happened:

Bear: Today, I got to write in my journal about what I want to be when I grow up.
Me: That’s great buddy! What did you write about? (I asked this knowing that my son loves dinosaurs. In his kindergarten graduation program, he said he wanted to be a paleontologist).
Bear: I wrote that I want to be an orthopedic doctor.
Me: Really? Why is that?
Bear: I want to put medicine needles in people’s arms, like Nurse Jessie does, so I can help people feel better. Especially people with Rheumatoid Arthritis, like you.

I was speechless.  Tears welled up in my eyes. When I pulled myself together, we talked a lot about what it means to be a doctor, and the importance of making a difference in the world. My son learned this lesson on his own, just from observing my daily struggles with Rheumatoid Arthritis.

The moment was a reminder of our interconnectedness. An illustration of the powerful impact our everyday words and actions have on others, especially children finding their place in the world.