🦓 Day 14: Cushing’s Awareness Challenge 2018

The Seven Dwarves of Cushing's

So, the dwarves above have only seven of the many, many symptoms of Cushing’s.  I had those above – and I often felt like I looked like one of those little bearded dwarves.

Cushing’s affects every part of the body.  It’s not like when I had kidney cancer and only the kidney was affected.

Here are some of the many areas affected.

  • Progressive obesity and skin changes
  • Weight gain and fatty tissue deposits, particularly around the midsection and upper back, in the face (moon face) and between the shoulders (buffalo hump). Some symptoms such as sudden weight gain, are caused by excess cortisol. The excess cortisol in the body does not increase protein and carbohydrate metabolism. It slows or nearly disables metabolism function, which can cause weight gain (fat accumulation) in the buttocks, abdomen, cheeks, neck, or upper back.
  • Loss of muscle mass. Some areas of the body, such as the arms and legs, will remain thin.
  • Pink or purple stretch marks (striae) on the skin of the abdomen, thighs, breasts and arms
  • Thinning, fragile skin that bruises easily
  • Slow healing of cuts, insect bites and infections
  • Acne

Women with Cushing’s syndrome may experience:

  • Thicker or more visible body and facial hair (hirsutism)
  • Irregular or absent menstrual periods

Men with Cushing’s syndrome may experience:

  • Decreased libido
  • Decreased fertility
  • Erectile dysfunction

Other signs and symptoms include:

  • Fatigue
  • Muscle weakness
  • Depression, anxiety and irritability
  • Loss of emotional control
  • Cognitive difficulties
  • New or worsened high blood pressure
  • Glucose intolerance that may lead to diabetes
  • Headache
  • Bone loss, leading to fractures over time
  • Hyperlipidemia (elevated lipids – cholesterol – in the bloodstream)
  • Recurrent opportunistic or bacterial infections
Think you have Cushing’s?  Get to a doctor and don’t give up!

MaryO
         MaryO

🦓 Day 11: Cushing’s Awareness Challenge 2018

In March of 1987, after the endo finally confirmed that I had Cushing’s, I was sent to a local hospital where they repeated all those same tests for another week and decided that it was not my adrenal gland (Cushing’s Syndrome) creating the problem. The doctors and nurses had no idea what to do with me, so they put me on the brain cancer floor.

When I left this hospital after a week, we didn’t know any more than we had before, except I found out that my brain cancer roommate had died.

As luck would have it, NIH (National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland) was doing a clinical trial of Cushing’s. I live in the same area as NIH so it was not too inconvenient but very scary at first to think of being tested there. At that time I only had a choice of NIH, Mayo Clinic and a French-speaking hospital in Quebec to do this then-rare pituitary surgery called a Transsphenoidal Resection.

My husband asked my endo if it were his wife, if he would recommend this surgery.  The endo responded that he was divorcing his wife – he didn’t care what happened to her.  Oh, my!

I chose NIH – closest and free. After I was interviewed by the doctors there, I got a letter that I had been accepted into the clinical trial.

The night before I was admitted, I signed my will.  I was sure I was going to die at NIH.  If not during testing, as a result of surgery.  The scary this is that I didn’t really care.  I’d rather take this chance than continue to live with Cushing’s.

The first time I was there was for 6 weeks as an inpatient. More of the same tests, except for one that they don’t do anymore.  I guess it didn’t really work for Cushing’s.

There were about 12 of us there and it was nice not to be alone with this mystery disease. Many of these Cushies (mostly women) were going bald, couldn’t walk, having strokes, had diabetes. One was blind, one had a heart attack while I was there. Several were from Greece.

My first roommate was a nurse.  She spent the entire first night screaming in pain.  I was very glad when they moved me to a new room!

Towards the end of my testing period, I was looking forward to the surgery just to get this whole mess over with – either a cure or dying. While I was at NIH, I was gaining about a pound a day!

During the time I was home the weekend before surgery, a college classmate of mine (I didn’t know her) DID die at NIH of a Cushing’s related problem. I’m so glad I didn’t find out until reading the alumnae magazine a couple months later!  She was the same class, same major, same hometown, same disease…

We have a Scottish doctor named James Lind to thank for the clinical trial.  He conducted the first-ever clinical trial in 1747 and developed the theory that citrus fruits cured scurvy.  Lind compared the effects of various different acidic substances, ranging from vinegar to cider, on groups of afflicted sailors, and found that the group who were given oranges and lemons had largely recovered from scurvy after 6 days.

I’d like to think that I advanced the knowledge of Cushing’s at least a little bit by being a guinea pig in 1987-1989.

From the NIH: http://endocrine.niddk.nih.gov/pubs/cushings/cushings.aspx

Hope through Research

Several components of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) conduct and support research on Cushing’s syndrome and other disorders of the endocrine system, including the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, the National Cancer Institute, and the National Center for Research Resources.

NIH-supported scientists are conducting intensive research into the normal and abnormal function of the major endocrine glands and the many hormones of the endocrine system. Researchers continue to study the effects of excess cortisol, including its effect on brain structure and function. To refine the diagnostic process, studies are underway to assess the accuracy of existing screening tests and the effectiveness of new imaging techniques to evaluate patients with ectopic ACTH syndrome. Researchers are also investigating jugular vein sampling as a less invasive alternative to petrosal sinus sampling. Research into treatment options includes study of a new drug to treat the symptoms of Cushing’s syndrome caused by ectopic ACTH secretion.

Studies are underway to understand the causes of benign endocrine tumor formation, such as those that cause most cases of Cushing’s syndrome. In a few pituitary adenomas, specific gene defects have been identified and may provide important clues to understanding tumor formation. Endocrine factors may also play a role. Increasing evidence suggests that tumor formation is a multistep process. Understanding the basis of Cushing’s syndrome will yield new approaches to therapy.

The NIH supports research related to Cushing’s syndrome at medical centers throughout the United States. Scientists are also treating patients with Cushing’s syndrome at the NIH Clinical Center in Bethesda, MD. Physicians who are interested in referring an adult patient may contact Lynnette Nieman, M.D., at NICHD, 10 Center Drive, Room 1-3140, Bethesda, MD 20892-1109, or by phone at 301-496-8935. Physicians interested in referring a child or adolescent may contact Constantine Stratakis, M.D., D.Sc., at NICHD, 10 Center Drive, Room 1-3330, Bethesda, MD 20892-1103, or by phone at 301-402-1998.

🦓 Day 7: Cushing’s Awareness Challenge 2018

In Day 12 on April 12, 2017, I wrote about how we got the Cushing’s colors of blue and yellow.  This post is going to be about the first Cushing’s ribbons.

 

I was on vacation in September 2001 when SuziQ called me to let me know that we had had our first Cushie casualty (that we knew about).

On the message boards, Lorrie wrote: Our dear friend, Janice died this past Tuesday, September 4, 2001. I received an IM from her best friend Janine, tonight. Janine had been reading the boards, as Janice had told her about this site, and she came upon my name and decided to IM me. I am grateful that she did. She said that she knew that Janice would want all of us to know that she didn’t just stop posting.

For all of the newcomers to the board that did not know Janice, she was a very caring individual. She always had something positive to say. Janice was 36 years old, was married and had no children. She had a miscarriage in December and began to have symptoms of Cushing’s during that pregnancy. After the pregnancy, she continued to have symptoms. When discussing this with her doctor, she was told that her symptoms were just related to her D&C. She did not buy this and continued until she received the accurate diagnosis of Cushing’s Syndrome (adrenal) in March of 2001. Tragically, Janice’s tumor was cancerous, a very rare form of Cushing’s.

Janice then had her tumor and adrenal gland removed by open adrenalectomy, a few months ago. She then began chemotherapy. She was very brave through this even though she experienced severe side effects, including weakness and dizziness. She continued to post on this board at times and even though she was going through so much, she continued with a positive attitude. She even gave me a referral to a doctor a few weeks ago. She was my inspiration. Whenever I thought I had it bad, I thought of what she was dealing with, and I gained more perspective.

Janice was having difficulty with low potassium levels and difficulty breathing. She was admitted to the hospital, a CT scan was done and showed tumor metastasis to the lungs. She then was begun on a more aggressive regimen of chemo. She was discharged and apparently seemed to be doing well.

The potassium then began to drop again, she spiked a temp and she was again admitted to the hospital. She improved and was set to be discharged and then she threw a blood clot into her lungs. She was required to be put on a ventilator. She apparently was at high risk for a heart attack. Her husband did not want her to suffer anymore and did not want her to suffer the pain of a heart attack and so chose for the doctors to discontinue the ventilator on Tuesday. She died shortly thereafter.

Janice was our friend. She was a Cushie sister. I will always remember her. Janine asked me to let her know when we get the Cushing’s ribbons made as she and the rest of Janice’s family would like to wear them in her memory. She said that Janice would want to do anything she could to make others more aware of Cushing’s.

The image at the top of the page shows the first blue and yellow ribbon which were worn at Janice’s funeral.  When we had our “official ribbons” made, we sent several to Janice’s family.

Janice was the first of us to die but there have been more, way too many more, over the years.  I’ll write a bit more about that on Day 21.

🦓 Day 6: Cushing’s Awareness Challenge 2018

day-late

 

Uh, Oh – I’m nearly a day late (and a dollar short?)…and I’m not yet sure what today’s topic will be.  I seem swamped by everything lately, waking up tired, napping, going to bed tired, waking up in the middle of the night, starting all over again…and my DH was recently diagnosed with cancer which makes everything more hectic and tiring.

It’s been like this since I was being diagnosed with Cushing’s in the mid-1980’s.  You’d think things would be improved in the last 31 years.  But, no.

My mind wants things to have improved, so I’ve taken on more challenges, and my Mom and DH have provided some for me (see one of my other blogs, MaryOMedical).

Thank goodness, I have only part-time jobs (5 0f them!), that I can mostly do from home.  I don’t know how anyone post-Cushing’s could manage a full-time job!

I can see this post morphing into the topic “My Dream Day“…

I’d wake up refreshed and really awake at about 7:00AM and take the dog out for a brisk run.

Get home about 8:00AM and start on my website work.

Later in the morning, I’d get some bills paid – and there would be enough money to do so!

After lunch, out with the dog again, then practice the piano some, read a bit, finish up the website work, teach a few piano students, work on my church jobs, then dinner.

After dinner, check email, out with the dog, maybe handbell or choir practice, a bit of TV, then bed about 10PM

Nothing fancy but NO NAPS.  Work would be getting done, time for hobbies, the dog, 3 healthy meals.

Just a normal life that so many take for granted. Or, do they?

 

me-tired

Day 5: Cushing’s Awareness Challenge 2018

 

Sleep.  Naps.  Fatigue, Exhaustion.  I still have them all.  I wrote on my bio in 1987 after my pituitary surgery “I am still and always tired and need a nap most days. I do not, however, still need to take whole days off just to sleep.”

That seems to be changing back, at least on the weekends.  A recent weekend, both days, I took 7-hour naps each day and I still woke up tired. That’s awfully close to taking a whole day off to sleep again.

In 2006, I flew to Chicago, IL for a Cushing’s weekend in Rockford.  Someone else drove us to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin for the day.  Too much travel, too Cushie, whatever, I was too tired to stay awake.  I actually had put my head down on the dining room table and fallen asleep but our hostess suggested the sofa instead.  Amazing that I traveled that whole distance – and missed the main event 😦

Sleeping in Rockford

This sleeping thing really impacts my life.  Between piano lessons, I take a nap.  I sleep as late as possible in the mornings and afternoons are pretty much taken up by naps.  I nod off at night during TV. One time I came home between church services and missed the third service because I fell asleep.

I only TiVo old tv shows that I can watch and fall asleep to since I already know the ending.

At the beginning of last year, I was doing physical therapy twice a week for 2 hours at a time for a knee injury (read more about that in Bees Knees).  I come home from that exhausted – and in more pain than I went.  I know it worked some and my knee is getting better, but it’s such a time and energy sapper.  Neither of which I can really spare.

Now that I’m nearly 12  years out from my kidney cancer (May 9, 2006) I have gone back on Growth Hormone again.  My kidney surgeon says he “thinks” it’s ok.  I’ve asked my endo about it and he finally gave it an ok last summer.  Considering the GH wasn’t supposed to contribute to my cancer, it’s interesting that these doctors prefer me not to be on it.  I want to feel better and get the benefits of the GH again but I don’t want any type of cancer again and I certainly can’t afford to lose another kidney.

I’m not sure how long I will stay on the Gh this time since I have a very high co-pay and I’m not seeing any benefit.

I’ll probably just muddle through without it.  I always laugh when I see that commercial online for something called Serovital.  I saw it in Costco the other day and it mentions pituitary right on the package.  I wish I could take the people buying this, sit them down and tell them not to mess with their pituitary glands.  But I won’t.  I’ll take a nap instead because I’m feeling so old and weary today, and yesterday.

And tomorrow…

🦓 Day 4: Cushing’s Awareness Challenge 2018

On Becoming Empowered. Adapted from my blog post Participatory Medicine

The Society for Participatory Medicine - MemberThis is kind of a “cheat” post since it’s a compilation of other posts, web pages, message board posts and some original thoughts.  I wrote it to submit to Robin’s Grand Rounds, hosted on her blog.

For all of my early life, I was the good, compliant, patient.  I took whatever pills the doctor prescribed, did whatever tests h/she (most always a he) wrote for.  Believed that whatever he said was the absolute truth.  He had been to med school.  He knew what was wrong with me even though he didn’t live in my body 24/7 and experience what I did.

I know a lot of people are still like this.  Their doctor is like a god to them.  He can do no wrong – even if they don’t feel any better after treatment, even if they feel worse.  “But the doctor said…”

Anyway, I digress.

All this changed for me in 1983.

At first I noticed I’d stopped having my periods and, of course, I thought I was pregnant. I went to my Gynaecologist who had no explanation. Lots of women lose their periods for a variety of reasons so no one thought that this was really significant.

Then I got really tired, overly tired. I would take my son to a half hour Choir rehearsal and could not stay awake for the whole time. I would lie down in the back of the van, set an alarm and sleep for the 30 minutes.

A whole raft of other symptoms started appearing – I grew a beard (Hirsutism), gained weight even though I was on Weight Watchers and working out at the gym nearly every day, lost my period, everything hurt, got what is called a “moon face” and a “buffalo hump” on the back of my neck. I also got stretch marks. I was very depressed but it’s hard to say if that was because of the hormone imbalance or because I felt so bad and no one would listen to me.

I came across a little article in the Ladies Home Journal magazine which said: “If you have these symptoms…ask your doctor about Cushing’s”. After that, I started reading everything I could on Cushing’s and asking my doctors. Due to all my reading at the library and medical books I bought, I was sure I had Cushing’s but no one would believe me. Doctors would say that Cushing’s Disease is too rare, that I was making this up and that I couldn’t have it.

I asked doctors for three years – PCP, gynecologist, neurologist, podiatrist – all said the now-famous refrain.  It’s too rare.  You couldn’t have Cushing’s.  I kept persisting in my reading, making copies of library texts even when I didn’t understand them, keeping notes.  I just knew that someone, somewhere would “discover” that I had Cushing’s.

My husband was on the doctors’ sides.  He was sure it was all in my mind (as opposed to all in my head!) and he told me to just think “happy thoughts” and it would all go away.

A Neurologist gave me Xanax. Since he couldn’t see my tumor with his Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) machine there was “no possibility” that it existed. Boy was he wrong!

Later in 1986, I started bruising incredibly easily. I could touch my skin and get a bruise. On New Year’s Day of 1987, I started bleeding under the skin. My husband made circles around the outside perimeter each hour with a marker, like the rings of a tree. When I went to my Internist the next day he was shocked at the size. He now thought I had a blood disorder so he sent me to a Hematologist/Oncologist.

Fortunately, the Hematologist/Oncologist ran a twenty-four-hour urine test and really looked at me. Both he and his partner recognized that I had Cushing’s. Of course, he was sure that he did the diagnosis.  No matter that I had been pursuing this with other doctors for 3 years.

It was not yet determined if it was Cushing’s Disease (Pituitary) or Syndrome (Adrenal). However, he couldn’t help me any further so the Hematologist referred me to an Endocrinologist.

The Endocrinologist, of course, didn’t trust the other tests I had done so I was back to square one. He ran his own multitude of tests. He had to draw blood at certain times like 9 AM. and 5 PM. There was a dexamethasone suppression test where I took a pill at 10 p.m. and gave blood at 9 am the next day. I collected gallons of urine in BIG boxes (Fun in the fridge!). Those were from 6 a.m. to 6 a.m. to be delivered to his office by 9 a.m. same day. I was always worried that I’d be stopped in rush hour and the police would ask about what was in that big container. I think I did those for a week. He also did standard neurological tests and asked lots of questions.

When the endo confirmed that I had Cushing’s in 1987 he sent me to a local hospital where they repeated all those same tests for another week and decided that it was not my adrenal gland (Cushing’s Syndrome) creating the problem. The doctors and nurses had no idea what to do with me, so they put me on the brain cancer ward.

When I left this hospital after a week, we didn’t know any more than we had before.

As luck would have it, NIH (National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland) was doing a clinical trial of Cushing’s. I live in the same area as NIH so it was not too inconvenient but very scary at first to think of being tested there. At that time I only had a choice of NIH, Mayo Clinic and a place in Quebec to do this then-rare pituitary surgery called a Transsphenoidal Resection. I chose NIH – closest and free. After I was interviewed by the Doctors there, I got a letter that I had been accepted into the clinical trial. The first time I was there was for 6 weeks as an inpatient. More of the same tests.

There were about 12 of us there and it was nice not to be alone with this mystery disease. Many of these Cushies (mostly women) were getting bald, couldn’t walk, having strokes, had diabetes. One was blind, one had a heart attack while I was there. Towards the end of my testing period, I was looking forward to the surgery just to get this whole mess over with. While I was at NIH, I was gaining about a pound a day!

The MRI still showed nothing, so they did a Petrosal Sinus Sampling Test. That scared me more than the prospect of surgery. (This test carries the risk of stroke and uncontrollable bleeding from the incision points.) Catheters were fed from my groin area to my pituitary gland and dye was injected. I could watch the whole procedure on monitors. I could not move during this test or for several hours afterwards to prevent uncontrollable bleeding from a major artery. The test did show where the tumor probably was located. Also done were more sophisticated dexamethasone suppression tests where drugs were administered by IV and blood was drawn every hour (they put a heplock in my arm so they don’t have to keep sticking me). I got to go home for a weekend and then went back for the surgery – the Transsphenoidal Resection. I fully expected to die during surgery (and didn’t care if I did) so I signed my will and wrote last letters to those I wanted to say goodbye to. During the time I was home just before surgery, a college classmate of mine (I didn’t know her) did die at NIH of a Cushing’s-related problem. I’m so glad I didn’t find out until a couple months later!

November 3, 1987, the surgeon, Dr. Ed Oldfield, cut the gum above my front teeth under my upper lip so there is no scar. He used tiny tools and microscopes. My tumor was removed successfully. In some cases (not mine) the surgeon uses a plug of fat from the abdomen to help seal the cut. Afterwards, I was in intensive care overnight and went to a neurology ward for a few days until I could walk without being dizzy. I had some major headaches for a day or two but they gave me drugs (morphine) for those. Also, I had cotton plugs in my nostrils. It was a big day when they came out. I had diabetes insipidus (DI) for a little while, but that went away by itself – thank goodness!

I had to use a foam product called “Toothies” to brush my teeth without hitting the incision. Before they let me go home, I had to learn to give myself an injection in my thigh. They sent me home with a supply of injectable cortisone in case my level ever fell too low (it didn’t). I was weaned gradually off cortisone pills (scary). I now take no medications. I had to get a Medic Alert bracelet. I will always need to tell medical staff when I have any kind of procedure – the effects of my excess cortisone will remain forever.

I went back to the NIH for several follow-up visits of a week each where they did all the blood and urine testing again. After a few years NIH set me free. Now I go to my “outside” endocrinologist every year for the dexamethasone suppression test, 24-hour urine and regular blood testing.

As I get further away from my surgery, I have less and less chance that my tumor will grow back. I have never lost all the weight I gained and I still have the hair on my chin but most of my other symptoms are gone. I am still and always tired and need a nap most days. I do not, however, still need to take whole days off just to sleep.

I consider myself very lucky that I was treated before I got as bad as some of the others on my floor at NIH but think it is crazy that these symptoms are not taken seriously by doctors.

My story goes on and if you’re interested some is on this blog and some is here:

Forbes Magazine | MaryO’s bio | Cushing’s and Cancer Blog | Guest Speakers | Interview Archive  1/3/08 | Cushing’s Awareness Day Testimonial Archive |

Because of this experience in getting a Cushing’s diagnosis – and later, a prescription for growth hormone – I was concerned that there were probably other people not being diagnosed with Cushing’s. When I searched online for Cushing’s, all the sites that came up were for dogs and horses with Cushing’s.  Not what I was looking for!

In July of 2000, I was talking with my dear friend Alice, who ran a wonderful menopause site, Power Surge, wondering why there weren’t many support groups online (OR off!) for Cushing’s.  This thought percolated through my mind for a few hours and I realized that maybe this was my calling.  Maybe I should be the one to start a network of support for other “Cushies” to help them empower themselves.

I wanted to educate others about the awful disease that took doctors years of my life to diagnose and treat – even after I gave them the information to diagnose me.  I didn’t want anyone else to suffer for years like I did.  I wanted doctors to pay more attention to Cushing’s disease.

The first website (http://www.cushings-help.com) went “live” July 21, 2000.  It was just a single page of information. The message boards began September 30, 2000 with a simple message board which then led to a larger one, and a larger.  Today, in 2018, we have over 12 thousand members and many others on Facebook.  Some “rare disease”!

The message boards are now very active and we have online text chats, occasional live interviews, local meetings, conferences, email newsletters, a clothing exchange, a Cushing’s Awareness Day Forum, podcasts, phone support and much more. Because I wanted to spread the word to others not on “the boards” we have extended out to social networking sites – twitter groups, facebook groups, interviews, websites, chat groups, LinkedIn, Tumblr, Pinterest and much, much more.

People are becoming more empowered and participating in their own diagnoses, testing and treatment.  This has changed a lot since 1983!

When I had my Cushing’s over 31 years ago, I never thought that I would meet another Cushing’s patient in real life or online. Back then, I’d never even been aware that there was anything like an “online”. I’m so glad that people struggling with Cushing’s today don’t have to suffer anymore thinking that they’re the only one who deals with this.

Because of my work on the websites – and, believe me it is a ton of work! – I have had the honor of meeting over a hundred other Cushies personally at local meetings, conferences, at NIH (the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, MD where I had my final diagnosis and surgery). It occurred to me once that this is probably more than most endocrinologists will ever see in their entire career. I’ve also talked to countless others on the phone. Amazing for a “rare” disease!

I don’t know what pushed me in 1983, how I got the confidence and self-empowerment to challenge these doctors and their non-diagnoses over the years.  I’m glad that I didn’t suffer any longer than I did and I’m glad that I have a role in helping others to find the medical help that they need.

What do *YOU* think?  How are you becoming empowered?

🦓 Day 3: Cushing’s Awareness Challenge 2018

 

This is one of the suggestions from the Cushing’s Awareness Challenge post:

What have you learned about the medical community since you have become sick?

This one is so easy. I’ve said it a thousand times – you know your own body better than any doctor will. Most doctors have never seen a Cushing’s patient, few ever will in the future.

If you believe you have Cushing’s (or any other rare disease), learn what you can about it, connect with other patients, make a timeline of symptoms and photographs. Read, take notes, save all your doctors notes, keep your lab findings, get second/third/ten or more opinions.  Make a calendar showing which days you had what symptoms.  Google calendars are great for this.

This is your life, your one and only shot (no pun intended!) at it. Make it the best and healthiest that you can.

When my friend and fellow e-patient Dave deBronkart learned he had a rare and terminal kidney cancer, he turned to a group of fellow patients online and found a medical treatment that even his own doctors didn’t know. It saved his life.

In this video he calls on all patients to talk with one another, know their own health data, and make health care better one e-Patient at a time.

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