Confessions of a Chronically Ill Overachiever

January marked five years since my RA diagnosis. It’s been a long road. Over the last couple of thousand days, I’ve received additional diagnoses and tried many remedies. I’ve gotten my hopes up and lost hope more times than I can count. Still, my life is mostly one continuous flare. And I have a confession.

I’m over it. ALL of it. The bone-crushing pain and the soul-shattering fatigue, of course. But also the endless planning, the constant balancing, the “perfect diet” quest, the pharmaceutical cocktails, the restrictions, the endless doctor visits, the guilt, the embarrassment….the end of carefree days. Most days, I can barely fit into my shoes. During the rare times I feel relatively “good”, I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop.

The relentlessness of chronic illness has taken a tremendous emotional toll on me, on my loved ones, and on my life. That’s inevitable, I suppose. But here’s another confession.

I believe I am making it worse.

I’ve been on this earth for 41 years. For all of that time, I’ve been a planner, a doer; what is commonly referred to as a Type-A personality. I face my setbacks head on, I stay positive, and I keep pushing.

Balance = more visits to beautiful Alaska! Photo credit: Jessica Hawk-Tillman.

Finding Balance = more visits to beautiful Alaska! Photo credit: Jessica Hawk-Tillman

And that’s the problem. I have been treating RA, Hashimoto’s, Sjogren’s, Fibro, tachycardia, and food allergies like temporary setbacks. In my mind, they’re something I need to push through so I can “come out stronger” on the other side. Case in point: In late 2011, I pushed myself so hard that I caught two viruses back to back. My body shut down, and I needed a central line and vasopressors to save my life. I had sepsis, spent days in the ICU, and was off work for 10 months. It should have been a wake-up call to me. It wasn’t.

In conversation, I would tell you that my expectations of myself are different than they were before I got sick. In my head, they are. But my actions continue to reflect my lifelong attitude toward any obstacle. “Forging on” is leading to crashes, disappointment, and feelings of failure. And if I want to do more than survive, I need to change.

This doesn’t mean I’m giving up. Quite the contrary, actually. I understand that while I need to keep a positive outlook, it must be balanced it with the reality of my daily challenges. I understand that I need to keep pushing for better health and new treatments, without pushing myself over the edge.

The amazing Toni Bernhard spoke about this very phenomenon in her most recent article. She discusses “positive thinking” vs “mental contrasting”, and wow. She nails what I’m trying to say above. Before we continue, please take a few minutes to read her thoughts at the link above. Go ahead, I’ll wait. 🙂

I’m now reevaluating every aspect of my life with these 3 questions. What’s my goal? Given my health, what are the obstacles I may face? How do I balance positivity and the reality of these obstacles, so I can reach my goal?

  • My work life today looks almost identical to my pre-RA days. The pattern of my days and weeks is predictable. I push myself during each work week, collapse most every night and weekend, and feel guilty and disappointed in myself when I do. Afraid to ask for accommodations at work. Afraid to say ‘no’, despite my body’s screams. Now, I’m speaking up. I’m requesting accommodation. I’m working with my manager to ensure my work allows me to contribute meaningfully, while keeping some spoons in reserve more often than not.
  • As we all know, doctors, pharmacies, and insurance require lots of extra energy to manage. They’re necessary, but I’m looking for ways to be a good patient and optimize these tasks. Here is one service I’m currently investigating. I’m pretty intrigued by the possibilities.
  • I’m opening myself to using assistance on long outings, remembering that I won’t enjoy myself (nor will Lora and Bear) if I am focused solely on my own pain and fatigue. Canes, rollators, and even my wheelchair are friends, not enemies. I’m even considering a motorized scooter.

This process is raw, and frankly, it’s a bit scary to share. But we’re all facing it. And I’m thinking it might be less scary if we do it together. So, I’d love to hear from you. What are your confessions? What changes are you making? What have you realized? Does “mental contrasting” resonate with you?

It’s taken five long years, and lots of lessons, but I get it. In that spirit, here’s one more confession:

I am chronically ill. It is not my fault, and it was not my choice. Still, there is a fulfilling life out there for me. It just looks different than the one I had before. I accept this, and I will do the work to live it. Every day.

Happy International Day of Persons with Disabilities!

Did you know that today is the UN’s International Day of Persons with Disabilities? According to their site, this year’s theme is “Break Barriers, Open Doors: for an inclusive society and development for all”. Absolutely!  Consider these statistics from the UN website:

  • Approximately 15 percent of the world’s population, over 1 billion people, live with a disability in some form.
  • People with disabilities are disproportionately represented in the lowest socioeconomic brackets.
  • Disabled people face not only physical, but social and cultural barriers that exclude them from equally participating in society.
  • People with disabilities have a higher mortality rate than their able-bodied peers.
  • Disability often equals unequal access to education, employment, healthcare, and legal support.

I am really proud of the work that my company does around accessibility.  Technology can do so much, and we’re dedicated, as are many other corporations and organizations of all shapes and sizes.  But there is so much more to be done.

A few weeks ago, I read this article, and though I only spend small amounts of time in a wheelchair, the author’s sentiments struck a chord with me.  What’s funny is that there was a similar one just a few months earlier, and some of themes are repeated.  I am sure many of you can relate.  I know I could.

Then, there’s this.  As a frequent Disney guest, the idea that people would take advantage of the disabled policy to “get to the front of the line” outrages me.  Disney’s wonderful treatment of the disabled makes it possible for all enjoy their vast theme parks.  They think about access, and they make it comfortable whenever and however they can in the parks and their resorts.  Every park is not so thoughtful.

I attended one of their competitors in a wheelchair, when it was not possible for me to go another way.  I was almost injured trying to enter two different rides.  In both cases, my wife could barely weave my chair through the narrow lines, and when we got to the end, the workers shuffled me onto the conveyor belts with everyone else, as if I was as able-bodied as the next guest.  Some might say that I should not have been riding (see above: societal/cultural barriers), but really, the ride was perfectly safe for me.  The 90 minutes standing in line, the other 10 hours in the day, and the conveyor belt system were the problems for me. Do those things mean I should not be permitted to ride?  Not at Disney, though they are now changing their policies, reportedly at least partially because of the reports in the above story.  Sad, though I still have faith that they’ll do a good job providing access to everyone.

As even these few articles and my minor experiences show, there IS much to be done.  More than that, it’s complex.

Physical and technological modifications must be made so it’s possible for anyone to perform the same tasks as an able person; whether they’re an amputee, someone in a wheelchair or with a cane or walker, with a vision/hearing/mental disability, or anything that makes them differently abled than the majority.

However, attitudes must changes too.  If we’re not willing to start a conversation, if we don’t invest and fund improvements, if we focus too much on the “dis” and not enough on the “ability”, if we cannot look someone who looks, speaks, or acts differently in the eye and just see them as human, we’ll never get there.  Thanks to the UN, and to all who fight for our different abilities, for giving us focus today. I’m with you!

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!

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!

More on Food: Meet Seamus Mullen

Admission time: I’m a huge foodie.  I love to cook, eat, and invent in the kitchen.  I’m a loyal subscriber to Cooking Light, Food and Wine, and Cuisine at Home.  One day, I’d like to go to culinary school.  While surveying the room during breakfast recently, my son said “Mommy…you really have a lot of cookbooks.” I guess the overflowing shelves were his first clue. 🙂

When I was diagnosed, I wondered if I’d have to give up cooking.  Then I read about Chef Seamus Mullen.  He’s a star chef, focused on Spanish cuisine, who owns Tertulia in NYC.  And he has Rheumatoid Arthritis.  He’s tackling his illness with courage and grace, and his career continues to thrive, despite its physical demands and grueling hours.  What’s more, he works to build awareness for RA.  When he appeared on  The Next Iron Chef: Season 2, he even discussed his illness and the additional demands of competing with it.

This week, Chef Mullen popped up again.  One of my favorite bloggers, Sara Nash, published this article about Seamus on MyRACentral.com.  I devoured it, as usual, and am now anxiously awaiting the release of his book.

I adore expressing my love for friends and family through food.  Seamus Mullen reminds me that I can, even though my body might try to make it more difficult.  Thank you Chef…you’re an inspiration!

UPDATE: When we were on our Mediterranean cruise, literally 4 days after I posted this, I discovered that the celebrity chef on board was…..Seamus Mullen! Talk about a crazy coincidence! We tried to get a chance to chat with him, but he was mobbed like a rock star at every event, and we couldn’t get in to any of the private ones by the time we found out.  We did enjoy watching him in an Iron Chef competition with the ship’s Executive Chef. And yes, he emerged victorious. 🙂

Lessons from Rocky Balboa

“It ain’t about how hard you can hit. It’s about how hard you can GET hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take, and keep – moving – forward.”
Rocky Balboa

 

I’ve seen this quote, and its General Custer and Vince Lombardi variations, many times, but it really speaks to me now.  You see, I’ve been a hard hitter most of my life (metaphorically speaking, of course).  Proactive, type-a, always pushing myself to be and do more.  This aggressive approach has served me well, and I’m proud of my accomplishments.  I’ve had some adversity, like everyone, but I’ve rarely felt a situation was out of my control.

 

Since developing RA, and especially over the last 6 weeks, the tables have turned.  I’m taking right hooks and haymakers every minute…

 

In late December, I began having a major “flare”, which is RA-speak for increased levels of swelling and pain.  This one, the worst I’ve had in the year since my diagnosis, has affected every joint in my body.  Even with my usual RA drug cocktail, strong pain meds, lots of rest, and Ironman Muscle Spray, I cannot escape the pain, even for a minute.  

 

The flare has caused me to miss some work, though my ability to work virtually much of the time has limited that (BIG thanks to my company and my great team!!!).  It also landed me in a wheelchair during a family outing, and even forced me to reschedule a planned weekend in Las Vegas.

 

As I fight, Rocky’s quote is helping me refocus my energy, strengthening me.  Instead of hitting first, I’m learning to absorb punches, so I can avoid a knockout.  I keep thinking of the scene in Rocky IV, when Rocky encourages Drago to keep hitting him, gaining inner strength from the onslaught.

 

 

I don’t think my victory will end a Cold War :), but I’m borrowing this approach in my battle with RA.  I feel stronger emotionally every day, and am making forward process (like starting this blog), despite getting punched daily by the disease.  Hopefully, the 12th round bell will ring soon on this flare, but I know there will be another in the near future, and I’ll again call on the Italian Stallion for inspiration.