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Posts Tagged ‘vasculitis’

I’ve blogged here before about my reading problems, from the neurological illness (cerebral vasculitis, very MS-like) I’ve lived with since 1994. From quite early on in my illness I was struggling more and more with print. Even large print books were a struggle. Luckily ebooks helped, when they appeared, but I still struggled with academic books, including throughout my history PhD. Which, ironically, was on historic reading habits.

Well I’m pleased to report that there are signs that my reading of print books may be recovering a little bit, or at least improving. In the last few months I’ve managed to read two non-fiction books (one academic, the other pretty in-depth), in print form. Very slowly, no more than a chapter at a time, and often less than that. And often quite extended periods before I can read any more. But even this is something I couldn’t possibly have tackled in many previous years.

There’s still no way I could tackle reading a long novel or similar in print, including in large print format. But if I can manage to catch up on some of my backlog of academic non-fiction books, albeit slowly, that would be brilliant. It would also help me move some of my planned academic history research projects forward.

My cerebral vasculitis is in a much more stable state at the moment, and the improved reading would fit along with that. But it couldn’t be assumed to happen, especially after so long. It may be that my brain is rewiring a little bit. There are probably limits to how much better it would get, given everything. Anyway it’s all very encouraging.

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I wanted to blog a bit about what my life has been like since 1994, and the struggles I cope with that people can’t see. There’s still very much a perception among the public and medical staff that you can judge someone’s health by looking at them, or in a short interview. This is the core basis of many things, including benefit assessments, medical consultations etc. But for fluctuating largely invisible illnesses it’s hugely flawed.

I fell ill with what would turn out to be cerebral vasculitis in 1994, aged just 22. This is a literally 1 in a million diagnosis (no I’m not making that incidence up!) and it can be very difficult to diagnose. I was misdiagnosed with ME at first, and only diagnosed properly in 1997 after brain scans and then many more tests. My form was initially similar to ME but then changed to be closer to multiple sclerosis, in a somewhat relapsing-remitting form, but also rather progressive. I’m not going to recount the whole medical history, which is summarised online. But it’s a struggle to stay alive, and it’s amazing I’m still here 21 years after that delayed eventual correct diagnosis. Chemotherapy, steroids and immunosuppression drugs (many lifelong) keep me alive, and slow down further brain damage.

What I wanted to focus on in this post is the invisible and fluctuating nature of my illness. Since not long after 1994 I’ve used a stick permanently, and more recently two. And since the late 1990s I’ve had my own manual wheelchair for occasional use. Yes those are visible signs of disability, and people do, thankfully, usually notice them, and take them into account. But other than this I can look very well. Chunky from steroids, but otherwise looking well. If I had a pound for every time someone said “You look well!” I’d be rich. Each time I want to cry – it’s not how I am. But what can you say. I get particularly exasperated when a medic says it.

What someone looking at me can’t see are the hidden symptoms. They can’t see how I struggle to control my bladder, and have to wear incontinence pads permanently, since I was in my early 20s. They can’t see inside my brain, to understand how as a conversation goes on I get more and more brain tired, have more trouble hearing, speaking without slurring, and just thinking full stop. All things that worsen as I’m more tired, that you won’t see, until it gets extremely noticeable, and by then it’s probably far too late for me, and I should have gone back to bed to rest long before then.

You’ll see me for just a short time when I get out, but won’t see how much I’ve had to rest – sleep solidly! – the day before any appointment or meet up, so I’m well enough to manage that outing. And equally how I will be knocked out and sleeping solidly both after I get home and the day after, because of what the effort to get out takes out of me. I make this effort because I want to have fun, and do things, but it always takes a lot out of me. Yes I may be smiling and happy when you see me for a short time, but I’m exhausted before and after, and it’s not easy.

Also I may use a wheelchair one day, and other days not. Or get out of my wheelchair part way through and walk with sticks after. That doesn’t mean that the wheelchair wasn’t needed, and that I’m fine. It just means that it’s done its job helping me to do what I need to do. And yes, I will still crash badly afterwards.

Nor do you see how much I need to sleep. As my disease has gone on over the years I’ve found that I need to sleep more and more. The amount increases during a relapse or flare, and can go as high as 18 hours total a day, every day, day after day, for weeks or even months. As the inflammation in my brain reduces the amount of sleep needed per day usually drops too, but it’s never anywhere remotely near normal. Often it’s as though I’ve been given a horse tranquilliser, and I’m very sedated and confused. I can’t fight it – if I do I risk at best making myself vomit uncontrollably as my body fights back, or at worst more serious brain damage happening, if I push myself too far. I’ve learned the hard way that I need to go along with my body, and that this increased sleeping is my brain’s way of protecting itself, especially during increased periods of disease activity. But it’s still difficult. And other people usually haven’t the remotest clue. They’ll think I have the normal amounts of time that others have per day to do things, whereas in reality I’m snatching odd hours here and there, as I can, sometimes weeks or even months apart. My first history PhD supervisor used to say he marvelled at how productive I would be in such a short time, which I found a really insightful and understanding comment.

One of the most infamous medical interviews I had was with a neurologist, who because I’d completed a PhD was convinced I couldn’t have significant brain problems. But I did that PhD in the most difficult circumstances. Part-time yes, but way more part-time than that sounds. For much of the time, including writing my thesis, I was working on the PhD in one hour chunks, spread throughout the week, for no more than five hours total a week. After each hour, for example writing more of my thesis, I would be so brain tired that it would take me up to a couple of days to recover before I could have another hour’s go. All because of my brain disease. But nope, I looked fine clearly, and this neurologist had no understanding. Luckily I didn’t rely on him for treatment,

I’m tired now, so will wrap this up. But I hope it’s given an insight into what living with an invisible and fluctuating disease can be like. If you have a friend or family member with something like this, please think twice before saying “You are looking well!” It may not be the most supportive way you can help them. And don’t prejudge strangers you encounter, including with Blue Badges.

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Was just commenting on a post in the Vasculitis UK Facebook group today, and reminded of the devastating daily nausea I had for years from Azathioprine. I started taking this drug in 1998 to control my life threatening neurological auto immune disease cerebral vasculitis. Basically the drug controlled the inflammation in the blood vessels in my brain, and kept me alive. Azathioprine is a very old chemotherapy drug, though not just used for cancer, but also auto immune diseases like mine. It’s quite mild, but it can cause the horrible side effects. I would feel sick within 90 minutes of taking the pills, and it lasted for up to 8 hours a day. Every day, for most of a decade. That’s what I lived with from 1998 onwards. Every single day. For some people the sickness goes away. Not me. I stuck with it because I suspected – rightly as it turned out – that all the cytotoxic drugs (including the main alternative drugs I could be switched to, and ended up trying later anyway) would make me hurl. Eventually, after another drug had been added to the mix in 2006, and I said I just can’t cope with this sickness from both, the medics put me on twice daily anti nausea drugs for life. That transformed my life. I wish I’d been on them sooner. Years later I had high dose chemotherapy infusions in hospital, which made me even sicker. But they only lasted a few months. Azathioprine went on for years. So yup, chemo and auto immune disease can be a stinker. And not just the obvious high dose infusions.

P.S. A point that I should add is that auto immune chemo patients don’t get the same support that cancer chemo patients do. We’re not given the same anti nausea drugs. Also no similar arrangements re free hospital parking for infusion days. But it can be just as tough. And a treatment that can go on for vastly longer.

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20 years ago I was undergoing a battery of tests to try to establish which neurological disease I had. I’d fallen ill 3 years earlier, aged just 22, and was initially misdiagnosed with ME. My symptoms changed over the next few years, and looked increasingly like MS. A MRI brain scan showed multiple lesions, suggesting some form of inflammatory disease process. More tests were needed to find out what.

I had those tests on November 5th 1997, 20 years ago this weekend coming up. Scans of organs of the body, visual evoked potential test, a lumbar puncture, and many blood tests. I remember driving home to the sound and smell of fireworks. The new diagnosis came a few weeks later: cerebral vasculitis, inflammation of blood vessels of the brain, cutting off the oxygen, causing brain damage, and symptoms similar to MS.

For a long time the future looked bleak, especially after a relapse in 2004. Vasculitis is an incurable disease, but with luck – and appropriate treatment – it can go into remission. Treatment is often lifelong steroids and immunosuppression, to reduce the inflammation in the blood vessels. I’ve had a very tough time over the years, though have been more stable since I demanded high dose chemotherapy infusions in hospital throughout summer 2012. Those turned things around.

So I’m now managing on a lower cocktail of daily immunosuppression drugs. But I’m still getting worse. I recently renewed my Blue Badge and my mobility was significantly worse than when I’d last renewed 3 years ago. And I’m very disabled in other ways, including sleeping up to 18 hours a day due to the brain inflammation. I can’t work with this, and am very lucky to be alive.

But I’m happy! And still here. So thankful for that. But it’s frustrating having this condition, that I will never be rid of. It’s also difficult for people to understand what’s wrong. Even though I use mobility aids – usually 2 sticks, if not my wheelchair – most of my problems are inside, invisible.

For more on my vasculitis story see my page on the Vasculitis UK charity website.

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I want to post about a consequence of the Brexit result that many people won’t have thought of: the impact on treatment and support for rare diseases. Since 1994, since the age of 22, I have lived with cerebral vasculitis, a 1 in a million diagnosis, which causes day-to-day symptoms similar to multiple sclerosis, but with the added bonus that it could kill me in a flash. Other forms of vasculitis are less rare, but all are rare. Vasculitis = inflammation in the blood vessels. In my case in my brain. Vasculitis is very under-supported by health services worldwide, causing huge difficulties and delays in diagnosis and treatment, which often leads to death. In the UK cuts to funding have impacted on cross-border referrals for vasculitis patients in Wales, seeking to go to centres of excellence in England, to get diagnosis and/or better treatment and support. And likewise for Scottish patients. Equally many patients in England have a considerable financial outlay, for life, for prescriptions of steroids and chemotherapy drugs that keep them alive. For life. No they don’t get these for free. Charities like Vasculitis UK are working to improve things, but it is a very hard job. Much of their funding and research comes from Europe, both in terms of money, but also working with colleagues elsewhere, to uncover new treatments, and improve support for patients. It is very unclear how this is going to be affected. My friends who are actively involved in Vasculitis UK are very worried. Before any Brexit-er tells me it will be ok, there will be a way, that it isn’t directly EU, or that the UK will replace the funding: no, we don’t know what will happen. And for such a rare diagnosis it is hard enough to get support as it is. The relationship with Europe for vasculitis research and funding is important. And right now the people who are working to save lives are very very scared. This makes me sad 😦 And scared myself.

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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.

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