Scleroderma Is Not ‘Just A Skin Condition’

badd ass

 

I recently spoke with a customer service representative at the Social Security Office.  She is tasked with asking questions, and making recommendations for the person seeking help.  So, I did a little research.

Today, I read an article by Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.  They presented 5 steps to take after diagnosis.  As a patient with scleroderma for 20 years, and diagnosed with sarcoidosis after years of symptoms, these steps sound very nice, but are a bit unrealistic.  Don’t get me wrong, these are great ideas in a perfect world, but the world of healthcare in the United States is far from perfect.  So, I’m going to comment on each step.  Please Note:  This is entirely opinion based on my experience.  If you find my comments useful to keep going, and not be deterred, awesome.  If you would like to tell me to go to hell, awesome.  Let me have it in the comments section.  I make some comments in this post that may incite retaliation.  I’m okay with that.

If you have healthcare where you are never denied a test or medication, this is the perfect plan.  The following steps are verbatim from The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.  My comments are in italics.  

Step 1: Take the time you need. Do not rush important decisions about your health. In most cases, you will have time to carefully examine your options and decide what is best for you.
– In 1994, there were very few treatment options for scleroderma.  I was given a leaflet and a nifedipine prescription and sent on my way.  My choice was to quit nursing school based on no information, move back to California from Wisconsin and get lots of rest, or stick with nursing school with no idea what to expect.  It took two years to get diagnosed with scleroderma.   Luckily, I was in the Navy for one year and half of that time.  I did not miss a paycheck because I needed to stay home sick or go to a doctor.  How would that work for someone else with no job, because they called in sick so many times while trying to get diagnosed with weird symptoms like blue hands, swelling and nerve pain.  Sure, my diagnosis was 20 years ago, a lot has changed because of research, but people in remote areas are having trouble getting the right diagnosis and care.  Just do a google search of scleroderma blogs and you will read how patients are trying to get a diagnosis or care, or getting denied disability benefits because they do not have the proper diagnosis yet, because their doctor is unfamiliar with scleroderma and thinks it’s ‘just a skin disease’.  In a recent conversation with a representative of Social Security researching adaptations for patients with scleroderma, she asked, “Why would someone with scleroderma need adaptations?  It’s a skin condition.”  I explained to her that scleroderma was not.  She was very receptive to the information I provided her, but she is one of many, who are trained to speak with people in need of life saving benefits and she thought Scleroderma was a skin condition.  We have lots of work to do! 

Step 2: Get the support you need. Look for support from family and friends, people who are going through the same thing you are, and those who have “been there.” They can help you cope with your situation and make informed decisions.

Lovely.  In a perfect word where family and friends understand that a chronic illness cannot be seen, this is a great idea.  The truth is, many patients suffer for years before diagnosis, because they feel crazy telling people they trust their symptoms and they are met with responses we have all seen in memes all over the internet.  Oh, where to begin!  Here are a few:
1.  You don’t look sick.  Check out The Spoon Theory by Christine Miserandino. It’s a great post about “Not looking sick”
2.  It’s all in your head.
3.  You need to exercise more.
4.  Then, there is the gossip some experience:  She’s a hypochondriac.
5.  Scleroderma sounds like a skin condition.  It’s in the name, so it must not be serious.
Okay, enough of that, you get my point.  First, we have to explain what scleroderma is to our family, while we try to grasp what it is, without panicking during every search on Google because people post wort-case to get attention for awareness.  I can’t blame them for trying, but it leaves little hope to newly diagnosed patients.  More and more patients are surviving scleroderma, but only those who have access to the best healthcare and educated providers.  

Step 3: Talk with your doctor. Good communication with your doctor can help you feel more satisfied with the care you receive. Research shows it can even have a positive effect on things such as symptoms and pain. Getting a “second opinion” may help you feel more confident about your care.

Speaking of doctors… When I moved to Murrieta, doctors here had only heard of scleroderma.  They mistook my syptoms of sarcoidosis for scleroderma symptoms because they knew nothing about sarcoidosis or scleroderma.  First, a patient has to find a doctor willing to do more than give the diagnosis and “wait and see”.  Make sure you are seeing the right specialist, a rheumatologist.  Not to mention getting baseline tests of lungs, heart and upper GI.  Now, if you are newly diagnosed, have a full time job and have “Golden Insurance”, this is not a problem.  I have a request: If you have an experience to share, share it in comments to encourage other patients not to give up.  This is a journey riddled with roadblocks by people paid to keep cost down.  We have to become our own best advocate.  And by we, I mean you who are reading it who are frustrated.  I have to drive 2 hours one way to get the proper treatment for my hands.  It sucks, but it is what it is.  I bring my dog and stop at the beach after.  I do it because since 1999, OTs at two nearby Veteran’s Hospitals would not work on my hands.  I was told I was a lost cause.  Since stopping the OT I received through the Wisconsin Veteran’s Healthcare System, my hands have since atrophied and now we are working to get some range back.  

Step 4: Seek out information. When learning about your health problem and its treatment, look for information that is based on a careful review of the latest scientific findings published in medical journals.

Visit at a hospital, or medical school library and ask the librarian for help.  Medical journals often post only abstracts of a study online, which is a short blurb about findings.  Google it without experience and it’s the perfect way to diagnose yourself into thinking you are dying.  Before you research, ask your doctor for the proper keywords and journal names.  I don’t want to deter you, I want to encourage you to find research foundations that research your specific condition.  For Scleroderma in the United States, I recommend The Scleroderma Research Foundation.   Their funds go directly to research and education.  They have one office.  As far as fundraising goes, they are nationwide.  The Scleroderma Foundation is a great place to go for support groups, education and research as well.  They have chapters all over the United States with many offices around the country.    Many are all volunteer, some have paid staff amd some are simply support groups.  They provide great services, and funds are raised for each region.  

Watch your back, Jack.  There are some online patient communities that offer counseling services without licensed counselors or ask you to donate to participate.  I am sure they do some good, but they claim to offer counseling services by unlicensed counselors.  I once worked with a former mentor (emphasis on the word former) placed plants in her closed groups in the early days.  And I have noticed there is a bot that initiates contact with people who tweet certain diseases, on behalf of my former mentor’s newly formed foundation.  But, don’t take my word for it- or anyone else’s for that matter.    If you find yourself in a group and it doesn’t feel right, go with your instincts.    If you see a group going after an individual or shuns members, that is a huge red flag. 

Step 5: Decide on a treatment plan. Work with your doctor to decide on a treatment plan that best meets your needs.

Great idea.  A treatment plan is an awesome idea!   Now the trick is to find a doctor who knows more than a thing or two about scleroderma, or your condition in your area.  You may have to travel, but it is worth it.  This is a chronic illness and your life depends on how well your care is managed.  I know scleroderma, so I will refer the two organizations I trust to help patients without requiring a donation or membership.  These organizations count on donations from people other than patients. If you pick up the phone and call these foundations, they will give you information over the phone for free.  
1.  The Scleroderma Research Foundation Contact Info and Downloads for newly  & not so newly diagnosed patients
2.  The Scleroderma Foundation  Contact info and Downloads for newly & not so newly diagnosed patients.   

Patient Communities:
Very helpful.  I recommend the following:
1.  Treatment Diaries   
Outstanding community founded by cancer survivor, Amy Ohm.  They will not ask you for money to join, and it’s a great way to connect with fellow patients.
2.  Inspire:  Another great online patient community that will not ask you for money to join.  

So, those are my comments about those 5 steps based on 20 years with scleroderma.  Many autoimmune diseases have similar symptoms to fibromyalgia, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and drugs used to suppress the immune system for cancer treatment, like methotrexate are often used in the early stages of scleroderma.

I would like to add that If you are newly diagnosed or seeking better care because what you are doing, don’t be afraid to look at how people with other diagnoses are coping.  We share the same experiences like loss, grief, anger depression and so much more.  My diagnosis of sarcoidosis was accidental.  I went to 4 different ER’s before UCLA took my trouble breathing seriously and and did the tests  that lead to a lung and lymph node biopsy that provided the sarcoidosis diagnosis.  Until I was given Remicade because of the sarcoidosis, my symptoms were progressing of both the scleroderma & sarcoidosis.  I had to fight for the recommended Remicade and bypass 3 other medications that needed to try and fail before using remicade because of cost.  Since 2007 and receiving Remicade with Methotrexate, the pulmonary fibrosis in my lungs has stopped progressing.  Fighting for care sucks, but it’s exactly what we have to do to get what we need when someone says “no” due to cost.  If you take anything away from this post, I urge you to keep fighting.  It’s hard.   I;m not going to lie, there were times I wished for death. I would tell myself, “I wish this was over.”  Until I realized my scleroderma was not going away and over, meant death.  I made it through the worst of it.  I think it is luck I am not dead because many die from scleroderma every day.  I’m here because it was not my time.  I continue to heal and become stronger because I am my own best advocate.  There are times I put my foot in my mouth and make mistakes.

If you skipped to the end:

Advocating for yourself is on the job training, even with help.  And there is no shortage of people looking for minions for financial gain or to fulfill some messianic fantasy.  So, watch your back, Jack.  Rest between battles, because you won’t win every single one.  Somedays, your only goal needs to be to live to fight another day.  Most important, the best possible outcome may not be what you want.  It may take compromises, like giving up certain foods and activities and worst of all (at least for me) asking for help.  If you have to give things up because you can no longer do them, take time to grieve, but try not to let it consume you and it times, it might but you can crawl out of the jaws of what’s consuming you.   There are no guarantees in life, but there is hope if you look for it.    Keep looking for hope.  We all have limited time here, cherish what you get.  I never said this would be easy.  I still struggle at times, I take antidepressants, I see a psychiatrist to manage my meds for anxiety and have a checklist of depression red flags for me.   Exercise and writing are my outlets.  My happy place is time with my son.  My dogs get me out of bed every morning.  Find you tools, then fight.