Saving Face

“God has given you one face, and you make yourselves another.”
William Shakespeare
Act 3, Scene 1 of Hamlet

I knew I was in trouble before I opened up my eyes this morning. I could feel that my eyelids were swollen before I attempted to wrench them apart. A trip to the mirror confirmed what my senses implied. My upper eyelids were elephantine. Worse, there were tender red patches beneath each eye. Worse still, tonight I’m scheduled to sit in front of a hundred or so paying audience members with a spotlight shining on this problematic face. Worst of all…it’s kind of my fault.
I write, “kind of,” because last night, when I applied my makeup, I hadn’t realized the potential for this consequence. I write, “my fault” because my neurologist had given me the opportunity to take an all-expense paid trip to the National Institutes of Health, (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, and get my rash seen by a dermatologist there. At the last minute, I’d chickened out, and had the NIH cancel my flight, because on that particular morning, my skin didn’t look so bad, nothing a little concealer couldn’t fix. I couldn’t stand the thought of flying all the way to Bethesda over a couple of little scaly patches that could be covered up with concealer. Believe it or not, I thought I was saving face. I couldn’t stand the possibility of being regarded as a hypochondriac.
Yeah, right. That hypochondriac option has been out for decades. Who did I think I was fooling?
I’m going to have to back up a bit. I’m going to have to be straight with you about a thing or two.
Starting with this: I set up this blog to share my experiences on an experimental medication for multiple sclerosis, DAC HYP. It’s only now that I notice that I’ve underplayed…as in, possibly haven’t mentioned…that I’ve experienced a side effect. That side effect is rash.
You might well ask, why not?
Here’s why not. I’ve got multiple sclerosis (MS) a horrible, and so far, incurable, degenerative neurological disease, and DAC HYP is the only medication I’ve taken—and I’ve taken plenty—that has actually served to stop the disease progression.
That’s pretty significant.
Rash? As side effects go, rash just hasn’t seemed that significant.
To put it into context, a potential side effect for a competing drug, Tysabri, is sudden death. So, yeah—rash. What of it?
I’d rather have a rash I can see than a brain lesion I can’t see. The choice to take the medication, and bear with the side effect, has been a no-brainer, at least for me. For a while there, I thought that anyone who saw things differently must just be more brain damaged than I am.
Two things have happened since I’ve started this blog that have changed the way I view the risk/benefit analysis of taking a drug that stops MS, yet causes rash.
Thing One: after years and years and years on this drug, I finally did get one—and only one—new brain lesion. And still, as far as I can tell, that’s a phenomenally good result if you compare the efficacy of this drug to that of any other MS drug out there. I’ve been told this one lesion had the good grace to show up in a “silent area.” I don’t agree that the damage was silent—I felt pretty horrible for a while there—but in truth, I’m feeling all right now.
Except for—
Thing Two: the rash has gotten worse.
Way worse.
When the rash first showed up—I believe that happened around the time the medication changed its formulation—it appeared on the inside of my hand; a nice, innocuous spot. No one was too likely to see it. And that was important to me. Some people call MS an invisible disease. I like it’s invisibility, thank you very much. MS only stays invisible if it isn’t allowed to progress.
The rash itched. I applied hydrocortisone. It went away. And then the rash reappeared, on my face of all places. A place everyone was likely to see. And that made the rash something I had to…um…face.
I managed to not face it.
I had a solution. I used a cosmetic. A simple concealer. Perhaps if I were a man, and not in the habit of putting on makeup, that move would have felt like a big deal. But I am a woman. Most of us women are all too familiar with, shall we say, putting our best face forward. (See: Hamlet.)
So yes. I wore concealer over my rash every day. Even on those days the NIH flew me out to examine me, to, you know, see if I was experiencing any side effects on DAC HYP.
Maybe we’ve been at cross-purposes. Whenever I visit the NIH, I always strive to be mistaken for a doctor instead of taken for a patient. My most treasured moments in Bethesda are the times I (almost) get away with this, like when a driver for the NIH picked me up from the hotel and asked, “Are you a patient, or…”
I treasured that “or.” I gave that driver a big tip.
The NIH culture supports these seemingly innocuous mistakes of identity. A nurse once berated herself after she’d asked me a question about my condition in an elevator. “I shouldn’t have done that. I’m not supposed to address you as a patient in front of other people.”
I’m not to be treated like a patient. I’m to be treated like a peer. One never gets too personal with one’s peers. I’ve had one neurologist actually apologize several times during an examination, for having to touch me, for asking me to disrobe. I understood she was expressing her respect for me. But that sentiment can go too far, and actually disrupt the messy process of getting down to the ugly truth.
And it’s hard to get there. For instance, you’ve been reading paragraph after paragraph about my rash, and I still haven’t mentioned I also have scaly dry patches on the inner folds of my arms and my legs. These patches itch. But I tend to forget to mention them, not only to you, but to my neurologist. Why? Because these itchy patches are not visible to others, at least not in the winter months. I can bear almost any amount of discomfort. I just can’t bear exposure.
Which brings me to the prospect of going onstage with a rash in front of about 100 people.
I’d had other plans for this evening’s appearance. I’d planned to get a professional make-up job. I’d planned to get an elaborate up-do. I’d planned to look fabulous, like I did on opening night, just a few hours after I made that cancellation.
Life doesn’t always go as planned
When I’d cancelled my flight to the NIH and my appointment with the NIH dermatologist, my neurologist had suggested I quit wearing make-up. After opening night, I complied. As of last night, my face was repaired, just in time, I thought, for me to take the stage again. Thinking the problem was over, I’d applied a little makeup before going to a concert. We know how that turned out.
This morning, I cancelled my make-up session. I didn’t want to make my elephant face any worse. I did not cancel my up-do.
And then I went to yoga. I’m so glad that I did.
Our teacher, Sharon, shared a passage from a book in which yoga instructor Sianna Sherman answers the question, What’s the best advice you’ve ever gotten?
Sianna answers, “Inner body bright,” a phrase she’d picked up from her teacher, John Friend. Sianna explains that this phrase is “his way of saying ‘It doesn’t matter what’s happening on the outside. No matter how fierce and intense and up against ourselves we feel, if we tap into that place—the place that yoga guides and invites each one of us to—we’ll find that our essence is bright and that our inner freedom is fully present.’ Often, it’s our outer freedom that’s compromised by own mind. We say: ‘Oh I’m not free’ or “I’m a victim, I’m not empowered. Or, ‘This happened to me…’ And then we start to close down. And that’s easy to do, but if we go inside and wait a minute, there’s this inner freedom that’s never compromised; there’s this inner light that’s always true. So you say to yourself, ‘Inner body bright, let me melt the outer body, melt all the crazy stuff that’s happening into the fire of my heart, into that inner light, and then I’m going to stand tall in this light and keep going, no matter what.”
As it happened, that message was exactly what I needed to hear to muster the courage to get onstage with a rash, and without the makeup. When I sit in the spotlight, I somehow doubt I’ll be whispering to myself, “inner body bright.” But I did get the message there’s more to me than meets the eye.
I have lived a long time. I have sported many appearances. I have been a cute little girl, a wince worthy adolescent. I’ve been a woman in a wheelchair. Last week, just before my opening night performance, when I was the lady with the fabulous updo, the owner of an upscale restaurant rushed up to my beautiful family, and asked, “Where do you come from?” in awestruck tones, as though he expected us to answer, “We have descended from Mount Olympus.” That night, it didn’t feel like a challenge to take the stage.
Tonight I’ll have to give the audience some credit. I’ve cancelled my up-do. I won’t apply concealer. I’ll see if I can summon up enough inner beauty to outshine the rash. (The swollen eyelids had calmed back down.) I am, after all, performing for trueTheatre. The audience expects me to be vulnerable. What better occassion to take that risk?

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Riding the Tide

“Lies are what the world lives on, and those who can face the challenge of the truth and build their lives to accord are finally not many, but the very few.” -Joseph Campbell
When I first went on daclizumab, I was euphoric. After going through six neurologists, and three MS medications, I finally found a brilliant neurologist who had uncovered an off-label medication that appeared to actually work.
My husband remained unmoved. He girded himself for every outcome, including the possibility that the medication would fail.
I shared his neutrality. At first. But then daclizumab surpassed my expectations. I had wanted nothing more than a medication that would prevent further exacerbations. What I got was a medication that did all that and more. Suddenly, I felt…able. I was able to hike and swim and lift weights. So I did. I pushed my suddenly able body to astonishing new limits. I rode the wave. I soared. My husband stood steadfast, like a beacon on the shore. He appreciated my toned body, but he didn’t expect it to last.
Indeed, it didn’t last.
No body lasts.
Love lasts.
Years passed. My physical capabilities became less and less astonishing. I had very much enjoyed becoming super-fit. As my physical parameters kept shrinking, I kept pushing back. It was with great reluctance that I finally learned to stop wanting more of my body than it can deliver.
This week, my hard-won acceptance was put to the test. I would have to also learn to stop wanting more of my medication than it can deliver.
The moment of truth arrived on Tuesday. I finally received the news my husband has been girding against ever since I started taking daclizumab, shortly after Tysabri was pulled from the market in ‘05. In all that time, my MRI’s have always come back with no further lesions. I’ve been lucky.
I’ve kept up on the preliminary results of the daclizumab trials, and while they are impressive, I couldn’t help but notice there hasn’t been a 100% cessation of disease activity across the board. Something had to give.
Now finally, something has.
My latest MRI came back with one enhanced lesion.
Just one little lesion, located in the so-called “silent area.” My local neurologist doesn’t think one lesion would be worth attacking with steroids. (And I must say, I’m relieved.)
The news of the MRI didn’t shock me. It was almost a comfort. I already knew I wasn’t well. It actually felt good to have some confirmation that there was a reason, even if that reason was inconveniently screaming from the “silent area.”
Daclizumab has worked wonders for me. But it is what is. It’s a medication—the best I’ve ever taken. It is not a miracle. It is not a cure.
Daclizumab is fallible. Just like me. That doesn’t mean it’s a failure.
I’m glad I haven’t been afraid to hope. Hope did me no harm, after all. Yes, I was once euphoric, but with good reason. I’d been given a reprieve. When the facts changed, I didn’t break. I changed along with them.
It’s been a good ride.

A Valentine’s Day Meditation On My Ex-Medications

I have three exes. Three medications I allowed to enter my body because I believed they would stand up for me against my nemesis, multiple sclerosis (MS).

One of my exes hurt me. One of them stood me up—and then ran into trouble with the law. One of them was nice, but ineffectual. None of them was tough enough to defeat multiple sclerosis.

I hooked up with Avonex in ’96. Let’s say that Avonex was like that kid who impresses all the grownups with his good looks and good manners, then insults them all behind their backs.

Avonex was my first. He caused me nothing but pain.

The day I started Avonex, my breasts were rock hard, and weeping. I made a sacrifice for Avonex; I weaned my sixth month old son.

The needle was long, the procedure confusing. After the injection, I ached all over for days.

Did it get any easier?

I never did get used to the needle, or the muscle aches, or the joint aches, or the flu-like symptoms. Only my boobs bounced back.

My doctor encouraged me to give it more time. Avonex and I only lasted nine months. Not my fault. I injected faithfully. Avonex didn’t hold up his end of the bargain. I had another MS attack. After all my patience, through all my pain, Avonex had done nothing to fend off the multiple sclerosis. As soon as I got back from the hospital stay, I called it quits with Avonex. I was tired of being his pin-cushion. Cutting my ties with Avonex meant cutting off the entire Interferon family. I wouldn’t give his cousin, Betaseron, so much as a glance.

Was it a clean break? No. Avonex was clingy. It took months—no—years, before I stopped feeling lingering joint pain from you-know-who. Since then, I’ve met one girl who claimed Avonex was treating her right. I wish her good luck. Avonex just wasn’t my type.

After Avonex, I went on a series of blind dates down in New Haven in a clinical trial for rock star Tysabri. I wasn’t allowed to know if I was with the real Tysabri, or his placebo twin brother. As the lack-luster months went by, I began to suspect I wasn’t involved with the rock star I was hearing so many great things about. I sure wasn’t dancing until three in the morning, or resuming my tight rope routine. I did my due diligence, and kept making trips to New Haven for the sake of science until the study was up.

Once the Tysabri trial was over, I went for wholesome boy-next-door Copaxone. Which was better than nothing. Or so I was told. Copaxone required a shot every day, which was quite a commitment. The needle was small. The side effects were…non-existent. Copaxone wasn’t going to hurt me. But did it help me? I couldn’t tell.

I believed in Copaxone. I had hope for our future. I shot up faithfully, day after day after day. I felt sorry for other girls, stuck with fickle meds that gave them nothing but side effects. Over the years, maybe I got too complacent. Maybe I ignored a couple of symptoms I shouldn’t have, like my fingertips going all numb and tingly.

When I relapsed on Copaxone, I did not even know it. I was shocked to learn my brain had developed a black hole. Copaxone let me down gently, which made the betrayal all the more insidious. I had no choice but to call it quits.

After I dumped boy-next-door Copaxone, I wanted to go for Tysabri. The real one. The rock star. After all those precious months I’d invested with the placebo twin in the Tysabri trial, I felt I deserved the real thing.

Tysabri and I did finally hook up. It was a one-time deal. The very next day, the Feds found out about Tysabri patients who died in the trials, and the parent company yanked Tysabri off the market. Maybe I was actually lucky to have been matched with that boring old placebo.

Tysabri and me were not meant to be.

Looking back, I wonder if I got benefit from any of my exes. I relapsed on all of them. They were all expensive, with price tags of over $1,000/month. Did any of those fancy boys slow down the progress of the multiple sclerosis even a little bit? I’ll never know. Perhaps all I got out of those medications was a sense of hope. Even a false hope can get a girl out of bed in the morning. That’s all very nice, but a false hope can also keep a girl from looking for The One.

I think I have finally found The One in 2006, then going by the name of Zenapax. When Zenapax started getting studied at the  NIH (National Institutes of Health) in Baltimore, he changed his name to DAC-HYP. Now DAC and I have a long distance thing going. We meet once a month in Baltimore. DAC has succeeded in keeping the multiple sclerosis at bay. The worst I’ve ever suffered from DAC is an occasional rash. That’s not too high a price to pay.

If I have learned anything from my exes, it is to keep my eyes open. I would dump any treatment in a heartbeat, even dear DAC, if I could one day hook up with that elusive cure.

p.s. from 2016: Even after the NIH study of DAC HYP ended, DAC and I are still going strong. My visits to the NIH have continued, though on an every six-month basis. DAC treats me right. But hopefully, we will soon not be so exclusive. If the FDA approves this medication, DAC will be seeing many, many other people, under the name Zinbryta.

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