Today is Rare Disease Day, where people living with rare diseases are promoting their experiences through social media and other forms of networking. Though this is a bit of a break from my usual academic blogging, I hope that readers will understand why I’m writing this.
I live with a 1 in a million diagnosis, falling ill when I was just 22. The name is cerebral or central nervous system vasculitis, which when it springs from nowhere – as in my case – rather than as a result of another disease has an incidence of about 1 case per million people per year. Yes I’m special! Mmmm. This disease has impacted on my abilities to be an academic, forcing me to leave one full-time science PhD and later study part-time as a historian, to PhD level (completed – yay!). And it means I can’t work in academia in a paid capacity, due to my MS-like symptoms and living with what is a progressive disease. But I try to be as productive as I can. To read more about my medical story see here, and to read more about how I’ve coped as an academic see here.
But in this post I wanted to reflect more on some issues that living with a rare disease causes, rather than something more commonly found like cancer or arthritis. These range from diagnosis, through ongoing treatment and medical research, support from the social care system, and varied degrees of understanding from family, friends and colleagues.
Firstly if you have a rare disease, getting the correct diagnosis – which can be life-saving – can be very difficult. General practitioners tend to assume a more common disease form is taking place. Even at hospital level this idea can persist. I was initially misdiagnosed with ME, which at the time (and to be honest still is the case) had no viable treatment. But my symptoms changed over the following years, looking more and more like multiple sclerosis. And progressing. It was very hard to get the GPs to take me seriously. It was only after 12 hours of unstoppable vomiting for no reason – one of my early symptoms – and a GP having to give me a midnight injection in the derriere that he referred me to hospital, extremely concerned. Even at hospital the consultant assumed my ME diagnosis was right. I had to argue with them – hard given how ill I was – why I thought it was wrong, and why more tests were needed. I was right. I had a very aggressive life-threatening disease. One shocked consultant, me just relieved that a proper diagnosis had been made, and treatment could finally start.
But then there are problems too. if you have a very rare disease it’s unlikely to get much medical research, so new treatments may not be discovered, or may not be assessed to be cost worthy and suitable for your disease. With more common forms of vasculitis – the disease I have – there is more medical research happening, particularly into those forms of the disease that are ANCA-associated. For these forms of vasculitis new treatments are developed, and approved on the NHS. But for much rarer forms like my primary cerebral vasculitis the number of patient cases around the world – and in any country – is so small that it isn’t possible to do traditional medical research trials. So my form remains largely unresearched, and there aren’t the trials and resulting scientific evidence to lead to approval for treatment with new drugs discovered for other forms of vasculitis. For example Rituximab is an extremely expensive life-saving treatment approved for ANCA forms of vasculitis. There is not scientific evidence for Rituximab in the rarer non-ANCA forms like mine, and as a result it is rarely approved by health authorities in the UK.
With such a rare diagnosis support at general practitioner level and nurse level can be a problem. They’ve probably rarely encountered any vasculitis cases, which is rare enough, let alone my specific form. I have an excellent GP who has treated me since 2004 (I fell ill in 1994), but it can be difficult to get appointments with him. Because of him being away from the surgery on one day combined with the health centre appointment system stopping named appointments on certain days it would be vastly easier for me to get an appointment with any doctor, particularly a locum, but unless they’re “my” doctor they wouldn’t know what to do with my case. I’m on an incredible cocktail of drugs as well as having something rare and exotic wrong with me, and continuity of care is important. Even with nurses who administer my monthly (and for many years weekly) blood tests things have been a little difficult, with nurses not understanding why certain tests are needed, and not initially taking my word for it. But we got there in the end. Incredibly even at hospital level there are problems if you have to see another consultant unfamiliar with a rare disease and case. My consultant since 1996 recently retired, and I was very concerned that I would be put in a general clinic where I would have to tell my medical story every time, and even after that the medic on the day wouldn’t be confident what to do. Fortunately I was passed to another consultant who was my “backup” for years. He’s young, and hopefully not retiring or moving anytime soon!
It might be expected that a medical professional should know about a rare disease, though they rarely do. But it can be harder for non-medics. This causes problems for example for people applying for benefits through the benefits system. But even with family, friends and colleagues there can be misunderstandings. My disease is largely invisible. I only use a wheelchair rarely, though I have at least one stick (and sometimes two) permanently. People often only see me for the short periods I can go outside to an event, and don’t realise how much it takes out of me, and how much I need to rest before and after events. Also because I manage to do things people can underestimate how badly I am affected. I’m particularly minded of the notorious experience of dealing with a neurologist, who because I had completed a PhD couldn’t grasp that I could have cognitive problems. I completed that PhD towards the end in 1 hour chunks, spread throughout the week, up to 5 hours total time a week if I could manage it. After each hour I would be very wobbly, couldn’t control my limbs, just from the brain concentration I’d been doing, and it might be a couple of days before I could do anything PhD-y again. Yet he thought I was fine, on the basis of a short consultation, and because I had that PhD.
Fortunately both my history PhD supervisors were hugely supportive. They quickly grasped that they didn’t need to understand the medical side of things, they just had to know how I was affected, and let me take control of my studies. I’ve also had wonderful support from the department since completing the PhD, giving me an ongoing honorary research fellowship. And conference organisers are typically very helpful if I have to use my wheelchair, letting my husband accompany me at no registration cost, to assist me.
I don’t know the numbers, but there are probably a lot more people living with rare diseases out there than people think. I’d like to think that the situation will improve for them. But it’s going to take a bit of a sea-change in attitudes, both among the general public, and among the medical profession.