Rare(ly diagnosed)

Today is Rare Disease Day and I started the day feeling like a fraud.

Kind of how I feel like a fraud when I have appointments at The Cancer Clinic. In the waiting room, I wonder if all the other patients know I don’t have cancer. Is my thick hair suspicious? Can they tell I haven’t tried chemotherapy yet? I feel sorry for myself sitting alone at The Cancer Clinic, yet I don’t even have cancer!

The truth is mast cell activation syndrome is likely not a rare disease. Some researchers believe more than 5% of people have MCAS! Although MCAS is current classified as a rare disease (affecting less than 200,000 Americans), I wonder what this classification is based on. Did people just start calling it rare simply because it’s newly recognized? I have never seen an official count of MCAS patients, although pulling the ICD-10 diagnosis code data on MCAS would be an easy start.

MCAS is rarely diagnosed for two reasons. First, it’s a newly recognized and very complex disease. It is the most confusing thing I’ve ever tried to learn. For reference, I’ve also tried to learn Chinese, tax increment financing, and Twitter.

Second, diagnosis often depends a cold piss relay race across the country. You have to collect 24 hours’ worth of your pee in your refrigerator, pack it in a cooler, and bring it to a lab. The lab then ships it across the country and you pray it stays cool the whole time. For reference, I can barely give a urine sample in the ER without spilling it on myself.

This year, I teetered back and forth about celebrating Rare Disease Day. I don’t want to be the woman who cried “rare” only to inform everyone that in fact naughty mast cells are lurking everywhere. Yet MCAS patients face the same obstacles any rare disease patient faces: lack of information; few experts; inadequate treatments; and little to no research funding. So where do we fit in?

It’s kind of like when the check-in nurse at The Cancer Clinic learns I have MCAS and insinuates that cancer would probably be easier. And then I have no idea how to feel.

The truth is they all suck: cancer, rare diseases, and MCAS.

Rare Disease Day raises awareness about patients’ lives and advocates for research funding for treatments and cures. MCAS taught me about Rare Disease Day, but I don’t need MCAS to celebrate it. I’ve decided, rare or not, I’m crashing this party (via the Internet (because my mast cells don’t like actual parties)).

Learn more about Rare Disease Day at http://www.rarediseaseday.org.

I’m allergic to my own hormones

“Are you in pain today?” the nurse asks looking up from the computer screen.

“A four,” I say, anticipating her request to “rate the pain on a scale of 1-10”.

She reads the next question, “Do you feel safe at home?

“Well, I live alone with my poodles, so yes… except when one of them farts and I think I’m going to die of asphyxiation.” I laugh at my own joke. The nurse does not. Had she heard that one before?

The nurse continues, “When was the last day of your first period?”

“2013,” I grin. This time I’m not joking.

“Are you on some kind of treatment?” the nurse asks.

I consider telling her I have a five-year-old fetus growing inside of me, but I’m too tired to explain what humor is. The truth is hard enough to believe anyway. “Yes. I’m allergic to my periods.”

She takes my blood pressure and then flees the room.

*****

Five years ago, I didn’t believe anyone could be allergic to their own hormones. How can you be allergic to yourself? Doesn’t an allergic reaction entail hives and sneezing? I did, however, understand that hormone fluctuations could ruin a woman’s life. With the help of the internet, I realized I was experiencing premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD).

PMDD was my most severe mast cell activation symptom from age 15 (when I got my first period) to age 27 (when I started taking continuous hormone pills). In fact, aside from my reactions to hormones, I felt healthy. Like MCAS, at that time, PMDD was relatively unheard of and provoked a lot of skepticism. No lab test can diagnose PMDD. Women with PMDD have the same levels of hormones as women without PMDD.

I wish I had a heartwarmingly funny way of describing PMDD to you, but the truth is it is living hell. Imagine a panic attack that lasts several days every month. Imagine being overwhelmed by impending doom, even though nothing has happened. Thoughts of hopelessness and paranoia cloud your mind, as your body becomes heavy and exhausted from crying. Your mind suggests death as a better option, while you try to pretend you’re okay for your job and your relationships.

For twelve years, I sought relief from this torture. I tried antidepressants, therapy, and supplements. Finally, a compassionate midwife worked with me to find a hormone pill that my body tolerated continuously. I learned no hormone fluctuations equaled no PMDD. The curse was over.

When I met my mast cell specialist several years later, he asked me to list my medical history. I told him that I was on continuous hormones for PMDD.

“Premenstrual dysphoric disorder,” I explained. He nodded, knowingly. His familiarity was curious, so I added, “I attempted suicide a couple times.”

He nodded again, completely unfazed. Had he heard me correctly?

Soon after, I learned that hormones can trigger mast cell reactions and many women with MCAS use medication to suppress hormone fluctuations. I learned doom is a hallmark sign of a severe allergic reaction. These days, when I’m anxious, I try Benadryl and it often helps.

Is mast cell activation the cause of all PMDD? I do not know, but I am suspicious. Am I insinuating women with PMDD also have MCAS? No, although it’s possible. Mast cell activation is not the same as MCAS. However, I wish I had known about MCAS sooner and gotten tested. Perhaps, I may have been able to stop the progression of my disease.

*****

As a final note, I’d like to share my biggest pet peeve of all time: women calling all birth control pills “the pill.”

When women tell me “the pill” made their PMDD worse, I want to ask, “Which fucking pill?”

The truth is some kinds of birth control pills absolutely make PMDD worse, while others, if taken continuously, can suppress PMDD completely.

Here are my tips for finding the right hormone medication to suppress PMDD:

  • Monophasic, not multiphasic
  • Avoid ultra-low dose
  • Continuous use (no inactive pills), not regular use
  • Take it at the exact same time every day
  • Be patient as your body adjusts to the new medication
  • Try another one if the first doesn’t work

As always, talk to your doctor about any concerns.

My mast cells have made a nest

Over the past week, I’ve been a dizzy, nauseous, painful mess. A relentless ache over my right kidney kept telling me I was dying, but I’ve felt this before and my CT scan was normal.

By the time I asked for an appointment, my emotions were as unstable as my mast cells. My specialist kindly lectured me on the importance of pain management. Pain can amplify allergic reactions. I tried to argue with her at first, but then I almost projectile vomited in her lap.

This time, my ultrasound was normal. Blood and urine were also normal. I was unsurprised, yet reassured to know I was not pregnant with what felt like Rosemary’s baby. All signs pointed to my mast cells as the culprits.

“Some MCAS patients call it a nest,” my specialist said.

I quickly went through the five stages of grief.

  1. This is not real life.
  2. I just wanted a damn kidney infection and some antibiotics. Why can’t I have normal problems that normal people can understand?!
  3. Maybe it would be easier to be pregnant with the spawn of the devil. At least then, it eventually comes out? Is that still a possibility?
  4. I’m never going to feel joy again, because all I can feel is this nest.
  5. I have a nest in my abdomen. It’s a thing.

Basically, I have a bunch of angry mast cells congregating on my right side and using my kidney as a piñata. Last time, I endured the pain for a week and half, and then it resolved on its own. I try not to think about living with these flares for rest of my life. As you can imagine, there’s no real treatment for a nest.

So today, I’m resting, taking pain pills, and lathering my back with Benadryl cream. And telling jokes to my nest.

Why didn’t the mast cell get invited to the birthday party?

 He’s too mean.

 

Get it… his-ta-mine.