A diagnosis that is hard to swallow…

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“If I gave you a cracker right now, could you chew and swallow it without water?”

Struck by the oddness of the question the Rheumatologist asked, I nevertheless thought about it only a fraction of a second and answered a sure “no”.

Why would he, a Rheumatologist, be asking such a question when I had been sent to him because of my ongoing complaints of sore joints, aching muscles, relentless fatigue and some vague irregularities in common blood test results?

I had seen this specialist once before. He had conducted a brief physical exam at the time, with special attention to my joints and muscles. He assured me I was completely healthy and he had no concerns. However, he sent me off to the lab that day after my appointment because he wanted a few specialized blood tests done. About ten days later he called asking me to come in to see him again for a more thorough examination, as there were some “indicators” in my lab work but he did not elaborate on what they might be.

This visit he started by looking in my mouth. I simply thought he was going to do a complete exam head to toe. After asking me about my ability to swallow a cracker he told me that my mouth was extremely dry, with barely any saliva in it all. I had never thought about it, but as he told me this, I knew he was correct.

This week someone asked me if dry mouth was the first symptom of Sjogren’s I experienced. I replied initially I thought it was not but rather it was the unrelenting fatigue alongside muscle and joint soreness that brought me to the doctor over and over again starting in my thirties. Looking back however, I suspect I may have had Sjogren’s as a teen or possibly as a child.

I remember being quite young and putting butter on my crackers when I ate them. As a teen my Mom looked at my toast and asked sarcastically, “You think you have enough butter on that?” I now realize I needed the fat on my crackers and toast so I could swallow them easily. My Mom had also wondered how I could wander around the house brushing my teeth and not be drooling frothy toothpaste all over. It is all clear now; my mouth was simply very dry for a very long time.

Further evidence of the dry mouth problem was that I had numerous cavities as a child / teen and was subjected to extensive dental work for fillings and crowns. As a young adult, my dentist said “You must have been a real grunge mouth when you were younger?” Thinking back, I realize as a youngster I was probably not as meticulous as I am now about my oral hygiene. I certainly know now how many foods adhere to my teeth; even something as simple as a single bite of a cracker or bread can cling to my teeth for hours since I have so little saliva.

Lack of saliva can increase risk of choking as well. At times I have had a miniscule piece of romaine lettuce or carrot get stuck on the lining of the back of my mouth or throat, strongly adhered, difficult to get back up or go down. Even with a drink sometimes it will cling, requiring me to eat a bite of something else in hope of it catching that fragment along with it to swallow.

The Rheumatologist had explained there were tests which could be done to confirm the Sjogren’s dry mouth diagnosis (lip biopsy, unstimulated salivary flow rate, etc.) but he said in my case they were absolutely unnecessary; a visual check combined with the blood tests, and other physical complaints was all he needed to be sure.

He explained I tested positive for ANA as well as the Sjogren’s specific antibodies SS-A, and SS-B in my blood therefore I indeed had Sjogren’s Syndrome. I had not an imaginary, psychosomatic illness, but a real one that had shown up in my blood explaining the symptoms I had been complaining about and reporting to doctors for years.

In that moment I was relieved, as well as excited to have a diagnosis at last. Little did I know then; in the coming years I would discover the diagnosis would be difficult to swallow in more ways than one.

*Note: Sjogren’s is not the only reason people experience dry mouth. Hundreds of medications (both prescription and over the counter drugs), cancer therapy, tobacco use, and nerve damage are a few of the other main causes of dry mouth. It should be noted that dry mouth is only one of many possible symptoms of Sjogren’s. For more info visit: http://www.sjogrens.org or http://www.sjogrenscanada.org

Sjogren’s Awareness: So, how did I get it?

This week a friend asked me how people get Sjogren’s Syndrome. Where Sjogren’s comes from is a good question. My first thought in response to the question would be: from Hell! I suspect other Sjogren’s patients, especially those who suffer with systemic symptoms and organ involvement would agree.

Personally I have no idea how I got Sjogren’s; medical scientists are still searching for the definitive answer to that question themselves. My friend asked if it was genetic, bacterial or viral. As far as researchers have been able to discover so far it appears it may be a combination of those factors that cause the illness to manifest itself.

Current thinking is perhaps more than one gene may be involved, but scientists are not certain exactly which ones are linked to the disease, because different genes seem to play a role in varying patient populations. Simply having one of the suspect genes will not cause a person to develop the disease; it appears some sort of trigger must activate the immune system. Scientists think that the trigger may be a viral (something like Epstein-Barr perhaps) or a bacterial infection. Some medical researchers are investigating whether maybe the endocrine and nervous systems play a role in developing Sjogren’s as well.

This is how researchers think it may work: A person who has a Sjogren’s-associated gene gets a viral or bacterial infection. The virus or bacteria stimulates the immune system to act, but the suspect gene(s) alters the attack, sending the fighter cells (lymphocytes) to the moisture producing glands initially, usually eyes and mouth. Once there, the lymphocytes attack healthy cells, causing the inflammation which damages the glands and keeps them from working properly. But Sjogren’s autoimmune reaction doesn’t always stop at the eyes and mouth; it can affect all moisture producing glands in the body, as well as other parts of the body including connective tissues, and organs such as the lungs and liver.

Basically how I usually describe it to people is that my body’s immune system started fighting something (virus / bacteria) in my body which means it was doing the job it was supposed to do, BUT then something happened to make it start attacking the healthy tissue instead, causing the autoimmune disease to manifest.

Because medical scientists still have no sure knowledge of the cause, it is no surprise that there is not yet a cure. No specific targeted Sjogren’s treatments are currently available either; there is no “go to drug” specifically for Sjogren’s. The best help patients currently have available are drugs to alleviate symptoms, to attempt to arrest the inflammatory process, and the immune-response.

You might think Sjogren’s is rare, yet it is not. Estimates are 1 in 70 people in USA / Canada have Sjogren’s. What is rare is getting a diagnosis because its symptoms vary from person to person, are often initially subtle and possibly even intermittent. It is estimated that most people wait an average of 5-7 years to get a diagnosis, but many more wait ten or more years and see multiple doctors in the process as they search for an explanation for the myriad of diverse symptoms Sjogren’s can cause, including excessive dryness of eyes, mouth, skin, digestive tract, etc., life-changing fatigue, chronic muscle and joint pain, organ involvement, neuropathies, and even increased lymphomas.

For more information on Sjogren’s I recommend:

“The Sjogren’s Book” (4th edition) edited by Daniel J. Wallace for detailed medical information on all manifestations of Sjogren’s and the science of autoimmunity in relation to it. It reads like a medical textbook, so best for those with medical knowledge or patients who have significant background regarding Sjogren’s.

If you prefer a less scientific read, I suggest “the New Sjogren’s Syndrome Handbook” (revised and expanded 3rd edition) by David J. Wallace which is exceptionally patient friendly.

For first-hand patient stories of getting diagnosed and living with Sjogren’s, Christine Molloy’s “Tales from the Dry Side: The Personal Stories Behind the Autoimmune Illness Sjogren’s Syndrome” is the best I have read.

All of the above are available via Amazon if you are unable to locate elsewhere, including your public library via inter-library loan.

http://www.sjogrens.org
http://www.sjogrenscanada.org

Tales From The Dry Side photo

Sjogren’s Awareness: Oh how I wish I was oblivious!

April is Sjogren’s Syndrome awareness month. As a fellow sufferer said yesterday – it is no April Fool’s joke. In an effort to help educate others about Sjogren’s I will blog some of my journey with this illness throughout the month.

Today on my personal Facebook page, I was asked by a friend how long ago I was diagnosed, and if Sjogren’s was “progressive”.

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I was “officially” diagnosed with Sjogren’s in 2002 (based on positive blood work for 3 different antibodies as well as obvious physical symptoms), however I know that I had it long before then. Significant symptoms began about 12 yrs prior, and lesser symptoms even earlier (as a child/ teen).

After the Sjogren’s diagnosis the docs thought I had Lupus as well, as I met several of the diagnostic criteria for Lupus especially due to sun-related symptoms, including at times the tell-tale malar (butterfly shape rash) on face. Then later, they decided I didn’t have it because I had not developed any signs of “organ involvement” (lungs, kidney, brain most typical organ manifestations with Lupus).

Next they thought I also had Dermatomyositis (another AI disease with specific types of skin and muscle manifestations) due to a very particular type of rash I developed on my hands, Gottron’s Sign, specific to that autoimmune disease. This was diagnosed by a Dermatologist who specializes in skin manifestations of AI diseases.

Eventually they decided I had Undifferentiated Connective Tissue Disease which basically means I have symptoms of both Lupus and Dermatomyositis but not, as they say, “full-blown” disease. Also related to the above I have Raynaud’s Syndrome, and previous episodes of Vasculitis.

Then the most significant event in my medical journey thus far was in May 2009. I was diagnosed with Autoimmune Hepatitis; my immune system attacked and damaged my liver. Hepatitis just means liver inflammation, my illness is not contagious, nor contractible like other “hepatitis”. Quite simply, my body began attacking my liver for no good reason at all.

Immediately after liver biopsy the gold standard to confirm the diagnosis, I began aggressive treatment including initial high dose, then long term steroids – Prednisone, followed by a chemotherapy immune-suppressant drug which I have to be on for the rest of my life, which hopefully as long as I take it and it continues to work, will keep me in a sort of remission.

Additional liver biopsies have confirmed my liver health is not as compromised as it was in 2009. BUT the immune-suppressant drug I take to keep my liver happy has significant side effects including small daily ones like digestive system upset (vomiting / diarrhea/ nausea) ranging to increased risk of cancer especially of lymphomas, and skin cancers. Apparently approximately less than 5% of Sjogren’s patients get AI Hepatitis. I often wonder why I could not be in the small percentage of people who win the lottery instead.

There are some people who only get what are described as the hallmark symptoms of Sjogren’s – dry eye and dry mouth. Too many of us get multiple, systemic symptoms. In speaking to many other Sjogren’s patients it also seems that once you are diagnosed with one AI connective tissue disease you begin to collect others, a domino effect. Over the previous few years I have suspected that I have thyroid and neurological issues developing or undiagnosed which remain under investigation.

Is Sjogren’s progressive? No, not in the sense of diseases such as ALS, which continually ravage the body destroying function to a greater and greater extent leading to inevitable death from that disease specifically. Sjogren’s is however, potentially life-threatening when patients experience organ involvement such as AI Hepatitis or other serious complications. Sjogren’s patients are at 44x greater risk for certain lymphomas. The drug I need to be on for my liver also has increased risk of lymphoma as a side effect. Does this mean I will get lymphoma? No, but I do feel like am rolling the dice. Based on my lotto winnings, I am not often a lucky gambler. Fingers crossed, hoping for better luck this time!

For more info on Sjogren’s: http://www.sjogrens.org

Never Doubt One Person Can Make a Difference

Back in July 2013 I blogged about a Kickstarter campaign by Christine Molloy raising funds for her anthology of 13 personal stories by Sjogren’s patients, including my own story.

Kickstarter is an innovative way to make creative projects happen, when traditional sources are not available. I am happy to report that 101 people gave $7305. towards the goal of $7000. for Christine to complete the project, and she has indeed published the book. Thank you to all Kickstarter contributors!

Christine’s goal in publishing the book was to allow individuals the opportunity to share their personal stories in an effort to increase awareness of Sjogren’s Syndrome.

Christine did not publish the book as a money-making venture, nor did any of the contributors submit with any hope to profit from the sale of it. Each of us told our stories solely in an effort to reach out to others with Sjogren’s, create support and understanding among patients and their families/friends, as well as to generate much needed awareness of Sjogren’s within the medical professions, as well as the community at large.

Here is a brief blurb about the book from Ms. Molloy:

Imagine for a second what life would be like if for years, you searched for answers to mysterious physical symptoms that were so severe, you could no longer participate in the daily activities of your life. What your life would be like if not only did the medical community doubt your sanity, but you begin to question it yourself. For approximately four million people in the United States, including tennis superstar Venus Williams, this is often a reality because they have Sjögren’s syndrome; an autoimmune illness that severely affects the moisture producing glands in the body. It is difficult to diagnose and even more difficult to effectively treat as there is no cure.

The publication gained greater credibility having the Sjogren’s Syndrome Foundation (USA) CEO Steven Taylor provide the book’s Forward. Ms. Molloy will also be attending the annual National Sjogren’s patient conference this Spring. Today she is attending the Boston Sjogren’s Support Group. The book has sold hundreds of hard copies , as well as Kindle digital copies.  A portion of every book ordered through the Sjogren’s Syndrome Foundation in the USA goes directly back to the Foundation for research and generating awareness. Congratulations Christine! In a short time, you have succeeded in creating much awareness with much more to come. You have shown that indeed one person can make a big difference!

In Canada, the book may be purchased directly through Amazon (paperback or Kindle):

http://www.amazon.ca/Tales-Dry-Side-Personal-Autoimmune/dp/1478722096/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1391298087&sr=8-1&keywords=Tales+From+the+Dry+Side

It can also be purchased directly from the Sjogren’s Syndrome Foundation website, on amazon.com, and in Barnes + Noble bookstores in the USA.

To read more about this project, Sjogren’s, living with Autoimmune disease, Christine’s personal journey and more, check out her blog – “Thoughts and Ramblings on Life, Love and Health” on the links below:

Christine Molloy photo

http://www.christinemolloy.com/

http://www.facebook.com/ThoughtsandRamblingsOnLife.Love.and.Health