Today is the final day of the Cushing’s Awareness Challenge and I wanted to leave you with this word of advice…
To that end, I’m saving some of what I know for future blog posts, maybe even another Cushing’s Awareness Challenge next year. Possibly this has become a tradition.
I am amazed at how well this Challenge went this year, giving that we’re all Cushies who are dealing with so much. I hope that some folks outside the Cushing’s community read these posts and learned a little more about us and what we go through.
So, tomorrow, I’ll go back to posting the regular Cushing’s stuff on this blog – after all, it does have Cushing’s in its name!
I am trying to get away from always reading, writing, breathing Cushing’s, and trying to celebrate the good things in my life, not just the testing, the surgery, the endless doctors.
If you’re interested, I have other blogs about traveling, friends, fun stuff and trying to live a good life, finally. Those are listed in the right sidebar of this blog, past the Categories and before the Tags.
Myth: “Vitamins and Natural Remedies can cure/heal Cushing’s”
Fact: Do you know how many people have told me that if I just “juice”, I will be cured from Cushing’s or Adrenal Insufficiency?! I appreciate the sentiment, but the sad reality is that no amount of juicing and no vitamin will cure Cushing’s. Some Cushing’s patients do take vitamins, some do eat raw food or paleo diets, and some even juice. However, this is just a lifestyle choice and not an attempt to cure Cushing’s. I must admit that when you have such a dreadful disease, you do sometimes take desperate measures to heal yourself. Perhaps, doing acupuncture or some other form of natural healing technique seems attractive at times. Take it from a person who has had acupuncture, seen many natural doctors, juiced, took vitamins, ate a raw food diet, and yes, I EVEN did a series of colonics! If you have ever had colonics, you know that it brings new meaning to the phrase, “no pain, no gain!”
Seriously, this is all before I knew I had Cushing’s. I watched as every person who administered the different kinds of treatment scratched their heads as I continued to gain weight, eventually at a rate of 5 pounds per week! They couldn’t believe that I was actually still gaining weight. Their natural and not surprising response, of course, was to project blame onto me. “Karen, there is NO way you are following protocol! You MUST be lying on your food log!” What we all didn’t realize is that I was suffering from a life-threatening illness called Cushing’s Disease that caused morbid obesity in me and that none of those “remedies” would EVER work!
Now, I have already been in Twitter wars over this topic. Someone tried to tell me that a raw food diet will “cure Cushing’s” and then she told me that I am “ignorant and in denial”! She proceeded to tell me that her daughter, though she had surgery to treat Cushing’s, was REALLY cured because of changing her diet. She also told me that the daughter, who had her Adrenal Glands removed, didn’t need steroids. Listen folks, this is VERY dangerous! I have no adrenal glands and I NEED steroids! Cortisol is life sustaining and you will die without it! I fully expect that someone will argue this point until the cows come home. It doesn’t matter. It won’t change the facts. Cushing’s is caused by excess cortisol in the body. The ONLY treatment is to target the source of the excess cortisol (i.e.brain tumor, adrenal tumor, ectopic tumor, or prolonged steroid use for another disease). Targeting the source is the first line of treatment. Cushing’s Syndrome/Disease will lead to death if not treated properly! #BattlegroundDiagnosis
Disclaimer: I am not a medical doctor. Please seek the advice of a medical professional if you have questions or need further assistance.
People sometimes ask me how I found out I had Cushing’s Disease. Theoretically, it was easy. In practice, it was very difficult.
In 1983 I came across a little article in the Ladies Home Journal which said: “If you have these symptoms…”
I found the row with my symptoms and the answer read “…ask your doctor about Cushing’s”.
After that article, I started reading everything I could on Cushing’s, I bought books that mentioned Cushing’s. I asked and asked my doctors for many years and all of them said that I couldn’t have it. It was too rare. I was rejected each time.
Due to all my reading at the library, I was sure I had Cushing’s but no one would believe me. My doctors would say that Cushing’s Disease is too rare, that I was making this up and that I couldn’t have it.
In med school, student doctors are told “When you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras“.
According to Wikipedia: “Zebra is a medical slang term for a surprising diagnosis. Although rare diseases are, in general, surprising when they are encountered, other diseases can be surprising in a particular person and time, and so “zebra” is the broader concept.
The term derives from the aphorism “When you hear hoofbeats behind you, don’t expect to see a zebra”, which was coined in a slightly modified form in the late 1940s by Dr. Theodore Woodward, a former professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore. Since horses are the most commonly encountered hoofed animal and zebras are very rare, logically you could confidently guess that the animal making the hoofbeats is probably a horse. By 1960, the aphorism was widely known in medical circles.”
So, doctors typically go for the easily diagnosed, common diseases. Just because something is rare doesn’t mean that no one gets it. We shouldn’t be dismissed because we’re too hard to diagnose.
When I was finally diagnosed in 1987, 4 years later, it was only because I started bleeding under the skin. My husband made circles around the outside perimeter each hour with a marker so my leg looked like a cut log with rings.
When I went to my Internist the next day he was shocked at the size of the rings. He now thought I had a blood disorder so he sent me to a Hematologist/Oncologist.
Fortunately, that new doctor ran a twenty-four-hour urine test and really looked at me and listened to me. Both he and his partner recognized that I had Cushing’s but, of course, couldn’t do anything further with me. They packed me off to an endo where the process started again.
My final diagnosis was in October 1987. Quite a long time to simply “…ask your doctor about Cushing’s”.
Looking back, I can see Cushing’s symptoms much earlier than 1983. But, that ‘s for a different post.
Myth: Even though you are chronically ill, you should have the same amount of energy every day. “You look SO good and you went to that party last month! Why can’t you come to MY party?!” When you say you are not well enough to do something, you are just making excuses. You could do it, just like you did that other thing; you are just choosing not to!
Fact: You may have heard me talk about “The Spoon Theory”. It was created by someone named Christine Miserandino, to explain the experience of someone with chronic illness in terms of using energy to live and to complete tasks every day. Though the myth assumes that one should have the same amount of energy all the time; the fact is that energy levels fluctuate and people who are chronically ill must make conscious decisions about what they can spend their energy on.
Christine Miserandino (2010) uses the spoon theory to answer the question, “What does it feel like to be sick?” The spoons serve as a symbol for resources available and energy spent to get through every moment of every day. Miserandino states that “The difference in being sick and being healthy is having to make choices or to consciously think about things when the rest of the world doesn’t have to”. Most people who get sick feel a loss of a life they once knew. When you are healthy, you expect to have a never ending supply of spoons. But, when you are not well, you need to count your spoons to keep track and you can never forget about it or take it for granted. Each task costs a spoon and each spoon is not to be taken for granted. Miserandino (2010) asks, “Do you know how many spoons people waste every day?”
Patients use the metaphor of a banking system. In this system, patients must make a withdrawal of a spoon every time they complete a task. Cushing’s and Adrenal Insufficiency patients talk about the “Cortisol Bank” metaphor. The concept is the same and the idea is that certain stressors and/or tasks cause one’s body to make a cortisol withdrawal from the body. Bad things happen when there is a cortisol deficit, meaning that there is not enough cortisol in the body for one to live everyday because of the amount of cortisol that has already been used up. If a person continues to draw from the bank on an account that is already negative, the situation can become worse and worse as each day passes.
Something needs to happen in order to start making appropriate deposits. This can include, taking more medication (stress dosing or an emergency shot), resting, getting adequate physical and emotional support and help, and saying “NO!”. Even when in a deficit, many patients have a difficult time saying “no” to an invitation to an event, completing a task, or engaging someone in a way that will use up more energy because of their fear of their loved one’s reactions. Much of the time, this fear is warranted because of the actual reactions they have received. Ever heard, “But you volunteered for the bake sale last week! You must be better! Why can’t you come to church this week?!”. You may have heard something similar.
It is important for loved ones to understand the amount of “spoons” it takes for a chronically ill person just to get through every single day. EVERYTHING costs spoons! The amount of spoons paid by each person varies from person to person. It all depends on that individual’s situation, body, level of illness, etc. What is common for all, though, is that spoons must be used and eventually those spoons run out. In order to avoid becoming sick or to recuperate from getting sick, the chronically ill patient must evaluate how he/she will use spoons and what tasks can be feasibly completed that day or week. Please understand that when the chronically ill patient says, “YES” to you; he/she is making a conscious choice to use up spoons to meet your need, request, or demand. Talking on the phone, going out to lunch, making dinner, coming to your event all required a sacrifice of another task that day or week. Your friend may have come to lunch with you but that required that she skipped washing the dishes that day or washing her hair, or is even giving up doing something important the next day. Instead of being angry at your friend, please consider why the request is denied at times.
Refer to the attached picture. This is not an exact science but gives some idea of the spoon bank. If you have time, try doing this exercise: Lay out 8-12 physical spoons. As you complete certain tasks throughout the day, use this chart to subtract spoons from your pile.
Each and every thing requires a spoon. Taking a shower, washing your hair, cooking, cleaning, watching a movie, going out to lunch, working, writing this post (Ha)! When you are done with your day, notice how many spoons you have left. Observe your feelings after this exercise. You can even do it for a week. Lay out a certain amount of spoons for every day for seven days. If you go into a deficit, borrow spoons from the following day. However, if you do borrow spoons; you must take away a task that you WERE planning to originally do that day. Notice what happens and notice how you feel at the end of the week.
Can you think of any other tasks that are not on this chart? Help our friends who are doing the activity. List those tasks and assign how many spoons each task will require. Spoon Bank Get out of bed- 1 Spoon Shower- 2 Spoons Attend Special Event- 5 Spoons Go out for Coffee- 4 Spoons Drive- 4 Spoons Make a Phone Call- 3 Spoons Work- 5 spoons Play Games-3 Spoons Clean the House- 5 Spoons Have a Meal- 2 Spoons Walk the Dog- 4 Spoons Study- 5 Spoons Watch TV- 3 Spoons Ironing- 5 Spoons Exercise- 4 Spoons Shopping- 4 Spoons Read- 2 Spoons Catch Public Transport- 4 Spoons Cook- 4 Spoons
Over the years, we went on several Windjammer Barefoot Cruises. We liked them because they were small, casual and were fairly easy on the wallet.
They sailed around the Caribbean to a variety of islands, although they sometimes changed itineraries depending on weather, crew, whatever. One trip we were supposed to go to Saba but couldn’t make port. A lot of people got off at the next port and flew home.
The captains were prone to “Bedtime Stories” which were often more fiction than true but they added to the appeal of the trip. We didn’t care if we missed islands or not – we were just there to sail over the waves and enjoy the ride.
The last trip we took with them was about two years before I started having Cushing’s problems. (You wondered how I was going to tie this together, right?)
The cruise was uneventful, other than the usual mishaps like hitting docks, missing islands, and so on. Until it was a particularly rough sea one day. I was walking somewhere on deck and suddenly a wave came up over the deck making it very slippery. I fell and cracked the back of my head on the curved edge of a table in the dining area. I had the next-to-the-worse headache I have ever had, the worst being after my pituitary surgery. At least after the surgery, I got some morphine.
We asked several doctors later if that hit could have contributed to my Cushing’s but doctors didn’t want to get involved in that at all.
The Windjammer folks didn’t fare much better, either. In October 1998, Hurricane Mitch was responsible for the loss of the s/v Fantome (the last one we were on).
All 31 crew members aboard perished; passengers and other crew members had earlier been offloaded in Belize.
This event was similar to the Perfect Storm in that the weather people were more interested in watching the hurricane change directions than they were in people who were dealing with its effects.
I read this book and I was really moved by the plight of those crew members.
I’ll never know if that hit on my head contributed to my Cushing’s but I have seen several people mention on the message boards that they had a traumatic head injury of some type in their earlier lives.
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Myth: “You should be all better by now! You found out what was wrong, you got the surgery, it’s been quite some time, and you are STILL not better?! You SHOULD have gotten better by now!” Chronic illness follows the same pattern as normal illness. You get diagnosed, treated, and then go back to a state of recovery, eventually leading you back to a state of “normal health”.
Fact: Chronic illness is called chronic illness for a reason, because it is chronic! Wayne Dyer addresses this myth: We usually expect to follow a pattern that is characteristic of most illness. “The person has an illness and falls from the path of normal health. Then, comes a period of diagnosis and treatment followed by a period of convalescence (the general recovery of health and strength after illness). Finally, the person returns to good health again” (p. 251).
The person is supported, typically, by family, friends, neighbors, and their church community during the illness, treatment, and recovery, assuming that at some point the person will return to normal health and their assistance will no longer be needed (p. 251).
However, in the case of the chronically ill, a different cycle occurs. In the chronically ill, the person loses his normal health. He goes through a period of treatment and sometimes recovers. “But for a number of reasons, depending on the illness, the person does not return to a condition of normal health but continues in a fluctuating pattern of chronic ill health. The person may have periods when he feels better or worse, but at no time does he ever return to complete good health.” (p. 252).
According to Dyer (1990), “Unfortunately, family members, friends, and neighbors do not know how to respond to this unfamiliar pattern, and they usually shift their attention away from the chronically ill person as others with the more normal cycle of sickness occupy their attention” (p 252). At this point, the person with the chronic illness feels a lack of support, understanding, and help. This can lead to increased pain, depression, and anxiety.
It is very difficult for family members, such as spouses, to deal with the person with chronic illness. “Chronic illness can disrupt and pide a family, or it can provide the family with an opportunity to grow in understanding, patience, sacrifice, and love for one another” (Dyer, 1990, p. 256).
For the chronically ill person and his family, the friends, neighbors, and church can either be a source of support and help or elicit feelings of neglect, rejection, and misunderstanding. Most people help at the beginning of the illness, but then become confused when the person doesn’t get better, so they withdraw their attention (p. 256).
Here are some ideas for helping the chronically ill person and family:
• Discuss in some detail with the person how his illness is affecting him and his family and find out what his needs are
• Make short visits to not overtire or over stimulate the patient
• Send a card or make a short phone call to the sick person
• Look for ways to help with young children
• Send a small gift
• Avoid saying things to make the person feel pressured such as “I hope you can come back to church every Sunday now”
• Don’t ask, “What can I do to help?” People don’t like to have to ask for support. Express sensitivity and go ahead and do something (p. 258).
I first saw a similar image to this one with the saying Life. Be in it at a recreation center when my son was little. At the time, it was “Duh, of course, I’m in it”.
The original image was a couple of males, a couple of females, and a dog walking/running. No folks in wheelchairs, no older folks, and certainly no zebras.
It would be nice to have everyone out there walking or running but that’s not real life, at least in the Cushie world. It’s been a long time since I’ve really been In My Life – maybe it’s time to get back.
A dear friend who has not one, but two forms of cancer was traveling throughout Europe for the first time after her husband’s death wrote:
Some final words before I turn in for the night. If there is a spark of desire within you to do something which is not contrary to God’s Holy Law, find a way to make it happen. All things are possible and blessings abound for those who love Him. Life is such an adventure. Don’t be a spectator – live every single moment for Him and with Him.
Somedays, it’s hard even getting up in the morning but I’m trying. Pre-COVID I took Water Aerobics for People with Arthritis and I actually went to class three times a week. Now, I took the stuff I learned there and do it 3 times a week as part of “water walking” by myself or with my DH. I got a “part-time” job several years ago and I’m teaching piano online. We had plans for a cruise to Norway which COVID made us reschedule for Alaska, which has to be rescheduled…again.
This is the one and only life I’ll ever have and I want to make the most of it!
Myth: “Each person requires the same dose of steroid in order to survive with Secondary or Primary Adrenal Insufficiency”
Fact: In simple terms, Adrenal Insufficiency occurs when the body does not have enough cortisol in it. You see, cortisol is life sustaining and we actually do need cortisol to survive. You have probably seen the commercials about “getting rid of extra belly fat” by lowering your cortisol. These advertisements make it hard for people to actually understand the importance of the function of cortisol.
After a Cushing’s patient has surgery, he/she goes from having very high levels of cortisol to no cortisol at all. For pituitary patients, the pituitary, in theory, should start working eventually again and cause the adrenal glands to produce enough cortisol. However, in many cases; the pituitary gland does not resume normal functioning and leaves a person adrenally insufficient. The first year after pit surgery is spent trying to get that hormone to regulate on its own normally again. For a patient who has had a Bilateral Adrenalectomy (BLA), where both adrenal glands are removed as a last resort to “cure” Cushing’s; his/her body will not produce cortisol at all for his/her life. This causes Primary Adrenal Insufficiency.
All Cushing’s patients spend time after surgery adjusting medications and weaning slowly from steroid (cortisol) to get the body to a maintenance dose, which is the dose that a “normal” body produces. This process can be a very long one. Once on maintenance, a patient’s job is not over. He/She has to learn what situations require even more cortisol. You see, cortisol is the stress hormone and also known as the Fight or Flight hormone. Its function is to help a person respond effectively to stress and cortisol helps the body compensate for both physical and emotional stress. So, when faced with a stressor, the body will produce 10X the baseline levels in order to compensate. When a person can not produce adequate amounts of cortisol to compensate, we call that Adrenal Insufficiency. If it gets to the point of an “Adrenal Crisis”, this means that the body can no longer deal and will go into shock unless introduced to extremely high levels of cortisol, usually administered through an emergency shot of steroid.
There are ways to help prevent a crisis, by taking more steroid than the maintenance dose during times of stress. This can be anything from going to a family function (good stress counts too) to fighting an infection or illness. Acute stressors such as getting into a car accident or sometimes even having a really bad fight require more cortisol as well.
It was once believed that everyone responded to every stressor in the exact same way. So, there are general guidelines about how much more cortisol to introduce to the body during certain stressors. For instance, during infection, a patient should take 2-3X the maintenance dose of steroid (cortisol). Also, even the maintenance dose was considered the same for everyone. Now a days, most doctors will say that 20 mg of Hydrocortisone (Steroid/Cortisol) is the appropriate maintenance dose for EVERYONE. Now, we know that neither is necessarily true. Although the required maintenance dose is about the same for everyone; some patients require less and some require more. I have friends who will go into an adrenal crisis if they take LESS than 30 mg of daily steroid. On the other hand, 30 mg may be way too much for some and those folks may even require LESS daily steroid, like 15 mg. Also, I want to stress (no pun intended) that different stressors affect different people differently. For some, for instance, an acute scare may not affect them. However, for others, receiving bad news or being in shock WILL put their bodies into crisis. That person must then figure out how much additional steroid is needed.
Each situation is different and each time may be different. Depending on the stressor, a person may need just a little more cortisol or a lot. Every person must, therefore, learn their own bodies when dealing with Adrenal Insufficiency. This is VERY important! I learned this the hard way. As a Clinical Psychologist; I assumed that my “coping skills” would be enough to prevent a stressor from putting me into crisis. That was FAR from the truth! I have learned that I can not necessarily prevent my body’s physiological response to stress. People often ask me, “BUT you are a psychologist! Shouldn’t you be able to deal with stress?!!!!” What they don’t realize is that my BODY is the one that has to do the job of compensating. Since my body can not produce cortisol at all, my job is to pay close attention to it so that I can take enough steroid to respond to any given situation. We all have to do that. We all have to learn our own bodies. This is vitally important and will save our lives!
To those we have lost in our community to Adrenal Insufficiency after treatment of Cushing’s, Rest in Peace my friends! Your legacies live on forever!
So often during the diagnosis phase of Cushing’s I felt lost like this picture – I was walking alone to an unknown place with an unknown future.
My diagnosis was pre-Internet which meant that any information had to be gotten from libraries, bookstores, magazines…or doctors. In 1983 to 1986 I knew something was terribly wrong but there was no backup from doctors, family or friends. My first hope was from a magazine (see Day Six)
After I got that first glimmer of hope, it was off to the library to try to understand medical texts. I would pick out words I did understand – and it was more words each trip. I made Xerox copies of my findings to read at home and try to digest. (I still have all those old pages!)
All my research led me to Cushing’s.
Unfortunately, the research didn’t lead me to doctors who could help for several years. That contributed greatly to the loneliness. If a doctor says you’re not sick, friends and family are going to believe the doctor, not you. After all, he’s the one trained to know what’s wrong or find out.
I was so grateful when I finally got into a clinical trial at NIH and was so nice not to be alone with this mystery illness. I was also surprised to learn, awful as I felt, there were Cushies much worse off than I was.
I am so glad that the Internet is here now helping us all know that we’re not alone anymore.
Mary, I am delighted to see you here. Cushings – because of the persistent central obesity caused by (we know now) the lack of growth hormone plus the hypothyroidism I was diagnosed with (but for which treatment was ineffective due to my lack of cortisol) – was one of the things I considered as an explanation for my symptoms. Your site was enormously educational and helpful to me in figuring out what might be happening to me. Those other patient testimonies I referred to? Many of them were the bios you posted. Thank you so much for commenting. I am so grateful for the support and encouragement. I really hope that my experiences will help other undiagnosed hypopituitary patients find their way to a diagnosis. I often used to dream that one day I’d get to say to others what was so often said to me: don’t give up, there will be an answer. I kept believing in myself because people I hadn’t even met believed in me. Now I am finally here and I do hope my story will help others to have faith in their own instincts.