Around 1983 I first started to realize I was really sick. At first I noticed I'd stopped having my periods and, of course, I thought I was pregnant. I went to my Gynecologist who had no explanation. Then I got really tired. I would take my son to a half hour Choir rehearsal and could not stay awake for the whole time.
A whole raft of other symptoms started appearing - I grew a beard (Hirsuitism), 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 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, 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.
Gaining weight in 1986 My husband just told me to 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!
In late 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. 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.
Fall 1986 I was also having trouble with my feet and walking, so I had the distinction of going to two doctors in one day, a Podiatrist in the morning and the Hematologist/Oncologist in the afternoon.
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.
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 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.
March 1987 after a week of testing When he confirmed that I had Cushing's 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 uncontrolable 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 injectible 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.
Tom and me in Barbados
Update: Fall, 1999:
I went for my regular testing with my private endocrinologist.
Besides the annual testing, he told me that my pituitary gland is shutting down, so I must always have extra cortisone (Cortef) for any medical stress such as surgery or the flu.
Many people are now finding that they need HgH after pituitary surgery, so an Insulin Tolerance Test was performed. My endocrinologist painted a very rosey picture of how wonderful I'd feel on Growth Hormone. It sounded like a miracle drug to me!
I was only asked to fast before the ITT and to bring someone with me to take me home. There is no way I could have driven home. I got very cold during the test and they let me have a blanket. Also, though, lying still on that table for so long, my back hurt later. I'd definitely take - or ask for - a pillow for my back next time. They gave me a rolled up blanket for under my knees, too.
I don't remember much about the test at all. I remember lying very still on the table. The phlebotomist took blood first, then tried to insert the IV (it took a few tries, of course). Then the endo himself put the insulin in through the IV and took the blood out of that. I remember the nurse kept asking me stupid questions - I'm sure to see how I was doing on the consciousness level. I'd imagine I sounded like a raving lunatic, although I believed that I was giving rational answers at the time.
Then everything just got black...I have no idea for how long, and the next thing I knew I was becoming aware of my surroundings again and the doctor was mumbling something. They gave me some juice and had me sit up very slowly, then sit on the edge of the table for a while. When I thought I could get up, they gave me some glucose tablets "for the road" and called my friend in. I was still kind of woozy, but they let her take me out, very wobbly, kind of drunk feeling.
My friend took me to a close-by restaurant - I was famished - but I still had trouble with walking and felt kind of dazed for a while. When I got home, I fell asleep on the sofa for the rest of the day.
But the most amazing thing happened. Saturday and Sunday I felt better than I had for 20 years. I had all this energy and I was flying high! It was so wonderful and I hoped that that was from the HgH they gave me to wake me up.
Edgewater Inn, Barbados
I will have to take this test annually until I do I do qualify for HgH. I got a small taste of what I would feel like on this drug - that weekend I felt much better than I can remember feeling in a very long time. Hopefully, at some point, I will "qualify" for this drug, even though it means a daily injection. I would really like to feel better sometime - less tired, less depressed, more human.
In July of 2000, I was talking with my dear friend Alice, who runs a wonderful menopause site, Power Surge, wondering why there weren't many support groups online (OR off!) for Cushing's and I wondered if I could start one myself and we decided that I could. This website (http://www.cushings-help.com) first went "live" July 21, 2000 and the message boards September 30, 2000. Hopefully, with this site, I'm going to make some helpful differences in someone else's life.
The message boards are very active and we have weekly online text chats, weekly live interviews, local meetings, email newsletters, a clothing exchange, a Cushing's Awareness Day Forum, podcasts, phone support and much more.
Whenever one of the members of the boards gets into NIH, I try to go to visit them there. Other board members participate in the "Cushie Helper" program where they support others with one-on-one support, doctor/hospital visits, transportation issues and more.
My husband, Tom (pictured above) posted this on the message boards:
"I just read your description of the 9 year ordeal. I am Mary's husband and much of your story was familiar.
Mary diagnosed her own illness. After a prolonged journey from doctor to doctor.
After her surgery and recovery, I found myself at a neurologist's office for some trivial ailment and the place seemed familiar.
Then it dawned on me that I had been there before with Mary. This was one of the doctors who had failed to listen. Or perhaps simply had no knowledge base about Cushing's.
In any event, I stopped the process I was there for and changed the subject to the previous visit 4 years ago. I told the doctor to look up his records on Mary O'Connor and study them. Told him that what he would see in his files was a case of Cushing's, misdiagnosed as something that might respond to Valium.
I said he could learn something and perhaps help the next person who arrived with Cushing's.
Out of fairness to the medics, the ailment is so rare that a doctor can go his entire career and never see a single case. And it is certainly possible that the doctor may fail to diagnose the few cases they may see.
Mary's surgery was done at NIH. It came down to them or the Mayo Clinic. At the time we did not realize that NIH was free and we selected them over Mayo based on their success and treatment record. They were happy to learn they had beat Mayo without a price advantage. We were happy to hear it was free.
During the same time Mary was at NIH, another woman had the same operation. She came from Mary's home town. They were class mates at college. They had the same major. They were the same age. They had the same surgical and medical team. Mary recovered. The other woman died during surgery.
I am an aggressive person who deals directly with problems. I enjoy conflict and I thrive in it.
This experience made clear how little we control. And how much depends on the grace of God.
This year we celebrated our 28th anniversary. Our son has grown into a fine young man and is succeeding admirably in college.
Life is the answer. We keep going on....undaunted and ever hopeful.
Update July 26, 2001
I saw the endo today. My pituitary function is continuing to drop, so August 6, I'll Be having another ITT, as described above. Hopefully, after this one, I'll be able to take Growth Hormone and start feeling better!
Update August 6, 2001
I had the ITT this morning. I don't get any results until a week from Thursday, but I do know that I didn't recover from the insulin injection as quickly as I did last time. The endo made a graph for my husband of me today and a "normal" person, although I can't imagine what normal person would do this awful test! A normal person's blood sugar would drop very quickly then rise again at about a right angle on the graph.
I dropped a little more slowly, then stayed very low for a long time, then slowly started to rise. On the graph, mine never recovered as much as the normal person, but I'm sure that I did, eventually.
The test this time wasn't as difficult as I remember it being, which is good. Last time around, I felt very sweaty, heart pounding. I don't remember any of that this time around. I do know that I "lost" about an hour, though. The phlebotomist took the first blood at 9:15, then the endo injected the insulin and took blood every 15 minutes after that. I counted (or remembered) only 4 of the blood draws, but it was 11:30 when they told me that my sugar wasn't coming up enough yet and I'd have to stay another 30 minutes. It actually ended up being another hour.
Kim, the phlebotomist, asked me if I got a headache when they "crashed me" and I have no recollection of any of that.
Like last time, I was very, very cold, even with the blanket and my left arm - where the heplock was - fell asleep. Other than that - and my back hurting from lying on one of those tables all that time this wasn't as bad as I remembered.
So, I waited for 10 days...
Update Fall, 2002.
The endo refused to discuss my fatigue or anything at all with me until I lost 10 pounds. He said I wasn't worth treating in my overweight condition and that I was setting myself up for a heart attack. He gave me 3 months to lose this weight. Those 3 months included Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years.
I know that I would like to lose weight, but I'd like to do it on my own terms, not over Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years, not because this endo was rude about it. I left his office in tears. I'm now looking for a new one...
Update Fall, 2004
I left my previous endo in November of 2002. He was just too rude, telling me that I was setting myself up for a heart attack and that I wasn't worth treating. I had left his office in tears.
Anyway, I tried for awhile to get my records. He wouldn't send them, even at doctors' or my requests. Finally, my husband went to his office and threatened him with a court order, The office manager managed to come up with about 13 pages of records. For going to him from 1986 to 2001, that doesn't seem like enough records to me.
I had emailed NIH and they said that they would be "happy" to treat me, but it was long between emails, and it looked like things were moving s-l-o-w-l-y. I had also contacted UVa, but they couldn't do anything without those records.
Last April, many of us from the message boards went to the UVa Pituitary Days Convention. By chance, we met a wonderful woman named Barbara Craven. She sat at our table for lunch on the last day and, after we learned that she was a dietitian who had had Cushing's, one of us jokingly asked her if she'd do a guest chat for us. I didn't follow through on this until she emailed me one day last summer. In the email, she asked how I was doing. Usually I say "fine" or "ok" but for some reason, I told her exactly how awful I was feeling.
Barbara emailed me back and said I should see a doctor at Johns Hopkins. And I said I didn't think I could get a recommendation to there, so SHE referred me. The doctor got right back to me, set up an appointment. Between his vacation and mine, that first appointment turned out to be Tuesday, Sept 14, 2004.
Just getting through the maze at Johns Hopkins was amazing. They have the whole system down to a science, moving from one place to another to sign in, then go here, then window 6, then... But it was very efficient.
My new doctor was wonderful. Understanding, knowledgeable. He never once said that I was "too fat" or "depressed" or that all this was my own fault. I feel so validated, finally.
He looked through my records, especially at my 2 previous Insulin Tolerance Tests. From those, he determined that my growth hormone has been low since at least August 2001 and I've been adrenal insufficient since at least Fall, 1999 - possibly as much as 10 years! I was amazed to hear all this, and astounded that my former endo not only didn't tell me any of this, he did nothing. He had known both of these things - they were in the past records that I took with me. Perhaps that was why he had been so reluctant to share copies of those records. He had given me Cortef in the fall of 1999 to take just in case I had "stress" and that was it.
The new endo took a lot of blood (no urine!) for cortisol and thyroid stuff. I'm going back on Sept. 28, 2004 for arginine, cortrosyn and IGF testing.
He has said that I will end up on daily cortisone - a "sprinkling" - and some form of GH, based on the testing the 28th.
So, in a couple weeks, I might start feeling better! Wowee!
For those who are interested, my new endo is Roberto Salvatori, M.D.
Assistant Professor of Medicine at Johns Hopkins
Medical School: Catholic University School of Medicine, Rome, Italy
Residency: Montefiore Medical Center
Fellowship: Cornell University, Johns Hopkins University
Board Certification: Endocrinology and Metabolism, Internal Medicine
Clinical Interests: Neuroendocrinology, pituitary disorders, adrenal disorders
Research Interests: Control of growth hormone secretion, genetic causes of growth hormone deficiency, consequences of growth hormone deficiency.
Update October, 2004
I had cortrosyn and arginine-GHRH stimulation test at Johns Hopkins. They confirmed what the doctor learned from reading my 4 year old records - that I'm both adrenal-deficient and growth hormone-deficient. I started on my "sprinkle" (5 mg twice a day) of Cortef now and my new doctor has started the paperwork for GH so maybe I'm on my way...
It feels weird to be going back on the cortisone after being off for so many years but at this point, I think I'd sell my soul to the devil not to feel the way I've been feeling for the last several years.
Update November, 2004
Although I have this wonderful doctor, a specialist in growth hormone deficiency at Johns Hopkins, my insurance company saw fit to over-ride his opinions and his test results based on my past pharmaceutical history! Hello??? How could I have a history of taking GH when I've never taken it before?
Of course, I found out late on a Friday afternoon. By then it was too late to call my case worker at the drug company, so we'll see on Monday what to do about an appeal. My local insurance person is also working on an appeal, but the whole thing sounds like just another long ordeal of finding paperwork, calling people, FedExing stuff, too much work when I just wanted to start feeling better by Thanksgiving. I guess that's not going to happen, at least by the 2004 one.
As it turns out the insurance company rejected the brand of hGH that was prescribed for me. They gave me the ok for a growth hormone was just FDA-approved for adults on 11/4/04. The day this medication was approved for adults was the day after my insurance said that's what is preferred for me. In the past, this form of hGH was only approved for children with height issues. Am I going to be a ginuea pig again? The new GH company has assigned a rep for me, has submitted info to pharmacy, waiting for insurance approval, again.
Update December 7, 2004
I finally started the Growth Hormone last night - it's like a rebirth for me. I look forward to having my life back in a few months!
Update January 3, 2005
After a lot of phone calls and paperwork, the insurance company finally came through at the very last minute, just as I needed my second month's supply. Of course, the pharmacy wouldn't send it unless they were paid for the first month. They had verbal approval from the insurance, but the actual claim was denied. Talk about a cliff hanger!
Update January 25, 2005
I've been on the growth hormone for 7 weeks now, and see no change in my tiredness and fatigue. A couple weeks ago, I thought there was a bit of improvement. I even exercised a little again, but that was short lived.
I feel like my stomach is getting bigger, and Tom says my face is looking more Cushie again. Maybe from the cortisone I've been taking since October. I can't wait until my next endo appointment in March to increase my GH. I want to feel better already!
Update March 21, 2005
My endo appointment is over. My endo thinks that my weight gain is from the cortisone, as I'd suspected. He cut that amount in half to see if I would stop gaining weight and maybe lose a little. Because of the adrenal insufficiency, I can't completely stop it, thought. My IGF-1 was "normal" so I can't increase the GH.
I made a vacation of this trip, though. A friend and I stayed 2 nights in a hotel and had some fun. The hotel had an indoor pool, hot tub, sauna, exercise room, wireless internet access, free shuttles to Johns Hopkins and the Baltimore Inner Harbor. We had a good time for ourselves, so I came home from this endo trip more tired than ever. Over the weekend, I took 7-hour naps on both Saturday and Sunday. Hopefully, that will get better as my body adjusts to the loser dose of Cortef.
Update September, 2005.
My last endo appointment I had lost some weight but not enough. My energy levels are down again, so my endo increased the cortisone slightly. I hope I don't start gaining again. I don't see any benefit with the growth hormone.
Update January, 2006.
A new year, a new insurance battle. Once again, they don't want to pay so I have to go through the whole approval process again. This involves phone calls to Norditropin (the company that makes the GH), my endo, iCore Specialty Pharmacy (the people who prepare and ship the meds) and my insurance company. This is turning into a full-time job!
Update April 14, 2006
I just went to see my endo again on Thursday to see how things are. Although I know how they are - I'm still tired, gaining a little weight, getting some red spots (petechiae) on my midsection. He also noted that I have a "little" buffalo hump again.
My endo appointment is over. Turns out that the argenine test that was done 2 years ago was done incorrectly. The directions were written unclearly and the test run incorrectly, not just for me but for everyone who had this test done there for a couple years. My endo discovered this when he was writing up a research paper and went to the lab to check on something.
So, I'm off GH again for 2 weeks, then I'm supposed to be retested. The "good news" is that the argenine test is only 90 minutes now instead of 3 hours.
Update June 2, 2006
Wow, what a nightmare my argenine retest started! I went back for that Thursday, April 27, 2006. Although the test was shorter, I got back to my hotel and just slept and slept. I was so glad that I hadn't decided to go home after the test.
Friday I felt fine and drove back home, no problem. I picked up my husband for a biopsy and took him to an outpatient surgical center. While I was there waiting for the biopsy to be completed, I started noticing blood in my urine and major abdominal cramps. I left messages for several of my doctors on what I should do. I finally decided to see my PCP after I got my husband home.
When Tom was done with his testing, his doctor took one look at me and asked if I wanted an ambulance. I said no, that I thought I could make it to the emergency room ok - Tom couldn't drive because of the anaesthetic they had given him. I barely made it to the ER and left the car with Tom to park. Tom's doctor followed us to the ER and became my new doctor.
They took me in pretty fast since I was in so much pain, and had the blood in my urine. They thought it was a kidney stone. After a CT scan, my new doctor said that, yes, I had a kidney stone but it wasn't the worst of my problems, that I had kidney cancer. Wow, what a surprise that was! I was admitted to that hospital, had more CT scans, MRIs, bone scans, they looked everywhere.
My open radical nephrectomy was May 9, 2006 in another hospital from the one where the initial diagnosis was made. My surgeon felt that he needed a specialist from that hospital because he believed preop that my tumor had invaded into the vena cava because of its appearance on the various scans. Luckily, that was not the case.
My entire left kidney and the encapsulated cancer (10 pounds worth!) were removed, along with my left adrenal gland and some lymph nodes. Although the cancer (renal cell carcinoma AKA RCC) was very close to hemorrhaging, the surgeon believes he got it all. He said I was so lucky. If the surgery had been delayed any longer, the outcome would have been much different. I will be repeating the CT scans every 3 months, just to be sure that there is no cancer hiding anywhere. As it turns out, I can never say I'm cured, just NED (no evidence of disease). This thing can recur at any time, anywhere in my body.
I credit the argenine re-test with somehow aggravating my kidneys and revealing this cancer. Before the test, I had no clue that there was any problem. The argenine test showed that my IGF is still low but due to the kidney cancer I cannot take my growth hormone for another 5 years - so the test was useless anyway, except to hasten this newest diagnosis.
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