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”.
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