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Sharmyn, In the Media

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Sharmyn, can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today.
My story is about the best kept secret in medicine…

I went from a petite dress size 2 to an obese size 22 in just one year. I went from athletically fit to barely able to walk upstairs. One of my closest girlfriends was a former Miss Universe and actor in Hollywood; we looked like sisters. We often hung out socially with those in the entertainment biz where anorexia is a compliment—not a disease.

But in 1993, at the age of thirty-one, I started to gain weight and lots of it. I ate a very healthy diet; I worked out five to seven days a week and trained with a fitness trainer just as I had always done, but the weight piled on. While my friends were busy planning their weddings and starting their families, I began my journey of the next seven years, seeking help from doctors all over California for a correct diagnosis and treatment. My beautiful thick, long blonde hair fell out by the handfuls. I got up to nearly 250 pounds, but the odd weight gain was mostly in my round moon face, and my stomach stuck out over fifty-four inches. Soon, many other symptoms started: I had constant anxiety, and I felt like I wanted to come out of my skin from the constant nervous energy racing through my body.

Nighttime was the worst; while I should have been sleeping, I paced my apartment to help slow down my racing heart. I felt nauseous from anxiety 24/7. I slept fifteen to twenty minutes at a time, but once I’d fall asleep, I would jolt awake with a shot of more nervousness pumping throughout my body. Sometimes I’d go days with only a few hours’ sleep.

Soon my blood pressure had to be controlled by medication; I also needed medication for anxiety and depression just to function. As a single woman, I needed to be able to keep my job; I needed to keep my medical insurance so I could keep seeking help from doctors. Although there were so many times when I wanted to give up, I had to keep going.

All the medical professionals said there was nothing medically wrong with me; just eat well and exercise more was their sage medical advice. I knew they were missing something as none of this was in my nature. A person doesn’t go from being thin, happy, and full of life to gaining over 100 pounds and enduring chronic anxiety and depression for no reason.

I continued for seven long years seeking help from general doctors to endocrinologists to gastroenterology specialists, rheumatologists, hematology experts, and even psychologists. All were highly respected and highly educated; unfortunately, none were willing to think outside their narrow perspective; none of these medical professionals wanted to listen to me, who in their words “let herself go.”

They would not believe me when I told them I was truly eating well and exercising properly but instead, offered more and more prescription drugs. When I said I didn’t want to take the drugs, and I wanted to find out what was causing me to be so sick, they wrote me off as unwilling to help myself. I was madly frustrated and felt betrayed by the medical community as well as society.

Many friends and even some family members felt I was causing myself to be sick. I’m not a shy personality, and I had no problem speaking up. Loudly, I begged for proper diagnosis; I begged for proper treatment. I told everyone, loud and clear, there was something medically killing me, and I wanted my life back, but they continued to blame me for my laundry list of poor health issues.

Eventually, I was so sick, I accepted that this undiagnosed illness was going to kill me eventually, but I was determined NOT to die before I found out what disease had turned my health upside down! I wanted to make sure other people did not have to suffer from this horribly embarrassing, lonely, debilitating disease. So, I started my journey to save myself, and whoever else was suffering like me.

Unlike today, back then, I couldn’t simply Google my symptoms, so I had to research by going through all my medical records. I remained persistent until I got copies of everything I needed. Through the years many doctors suggested I had hormonal issues, but they attributed any hormonal abnormalities to the fact I was obese and suggested if I lost weight, all my health problems would be gone. They were like an annoying, broken record.

But I didn’t go to medical school, so I had to rely on my intuition and the fact that I knew my body better than anyone else. I had a hunch the hormone issues were causing ALL my health issues.  Fortunately, while going over thousands of pages of lab results and doctor’s notes, among innumerable discrepancies of the medical opinions and endless mismanagement of my healthcare, I also found a few clues of where to start.

I borrowed a friend’s computer and typed in Cortisol. According to my health records, this hormone had only been tested once in seven years, and it registered as Very High—Above Normal level. The doctors said it was high because I was overweight, but I wanted to see for myself. And up on the computer screen popped an article published by the Pituitary Network Association,www.pituitary.org.

The article’s headline read: “Cushing’s Disease.” In one of my previous medical reports, a doctor wrote he ruled out Cushing’s syndrome. This article proved him uneducated about proper testing for Cushing’s, and he was very wrong.

Cushing’s disease is a secondary disease caused by a pituitary brain tumor. The pituitary is a small, bean-shaped gland, less than one centimeter in size, and referred to as the master gland. It sits at the base of our brain between our optic nerves and carotid arteries. This small but powerful gland controls our quality of life by producing major hormones.

A Cushing’s tumor produces high levels of adrenocorticotropic hormone, (ACTH), which in turn signals the pituitary gland to stop producing the normal production of ACTH. One of the key functions of the pituitary gland is to keep us alive by signaling the adrenal glands when to produce and when not to produce Cortisol, our one life-sustaining hormone. However, the ACTH producing tumor never shuts off the production of ACTH, causing the pituitary to stop its normal feedback system with the adrenal glands.

Therefore, the adrenal glands never stop overproducing our fight or flight hormone, cortisol. For years the medical community and others told me that my health issues were all in my head. Well, in fairness, they were right. Luckily for me, I knew I was not causing this madness. Although it still sounds strange to say, I was so happy to find out that I had a serious and life-threatening pituitary tumor because, for the first time, I knew where to start my fight.

Once I suspected I had Cushing’s disease, I had to find the experts to confirm the often-complicated diagnosis. And that’s when the universe guided me through more research to meet the team that helped save my life! Dr. Pejman Cohan, my neuro-endocrinologist, and Dr. Daniel Kelly, my neurosurgeon, the director of the Pacific Neuroscience Institute in Santa Monica, CA. My angels were in my own backyard!

Dr. Cohan soon confirmed my diagnosis of Cushing’s disease, and it was Dr. Kelly’s difficult task to remove the tiny tumor that wreaked so much havoc. On April 14, 2000, Dr. Kelly successfully removed the tumor, and the next chapter of my journey began: helping others who suffer from this horribly underdiagnosed, misunderstood, life-threatening disease.

For the past nineteen years, I have been honored as a pituitary patient advocate spokesperson both nationally and internationally. Pituitary Tumors are the Best Kept Secret in Medicine. I’ve remained dedicated along with a team of pituitary neuro-endocrine experts to raise public awareness and help educate, and in some cases, reeducate the medical community on recognizing the symptoms of a pituitary tumor and/or hormonal issues related to the neuroendocrine system.

Pituitary disease is uncommon but not rare; however, there are commonly four types of pituitary tumors: prolactin-producing tumors, acromegaly, caused by too much growth hormone, Cushing’s disease, too much ACTH causes a secondary disease of too much cortisol hormone, and non-functioning tumors, which have their own set of problems.

For more information, visit www.hormones411.org, and https://www.pacificneuroscienceinstitute.org/pituitary-disorders/

Or email Sharmyn at pituitarybuddy@hotmail.com or sharmyn@hormone411.org

Join us for support and education Pituitary Patient Support Group Meetings: https://www.pacificneuroscienceinstitute.org/resources/patient-resources/patient-support-groups/.

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc. – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
I can say in all honesty the darkest part of my life, struggling for a correct diagnosis, has turned into the brightest part of my life. The pituitary tumor experts I work closely with: Dr. Daniel Kelly, Dr. Garni Barkhoudarian, Dr. Pejman Cohan, and a handful of others are truly amazing.

These teams of experts respect and value my patient advocate perspective, and they have restored my faith in our medical community. I’m honored to have traveled this difficult journey with these brilliant, caring, and compassionate doctors along with many others who are dedicated patient advocates.

But truly, what makes this journey rewarding and worth the endless hours we’ve all put into the proper treatment and awareness of pituitary disease is the patients. Seeing how far we have come to help raise public awareness and education in our medical communities makes me extremely proud I could be an important part of it.

Speaking with the patients, seeing them get their lives back, helping them to make good, educated decisions about their treatment is really what keeps us all going. And the icing on my cake has been meeting two of my closest friends, Krystina, who had a prolactin tumor, and Shady, who had acromegaly—both had pituitary surgery with Dr. Kelly, and they are leading healthy and productive lives. I love them like my sisters.

So, as you know, we’re impressed with Hormones411 – tell our readers more, for example, what you’re most proud of as a company and what sets you apart from others.
When I was growing up, I struggled all through school; learning wasn’t easy for me. One of my high school teachers had me stand up in the middle of her class in front of my peers while she berated and humiliated me over my poor grammar and spelling. I walked out of her class and never went back.

After that, I was petrified to write so much as a greeting card that someone would read. After barely graduating from high school, I was unable to pass the entrance exam for English 101 at our local college. I tested at a fourth-grade level. Earlier that year, I was diagnosed as severely dyslexic.

My high school in Southern California was overcrowded with 2100 students in my graduating class. My home life was chaotic, and there was no one there to help me either. I felt that my dream of becoming a writer was impossible. This was long before computers, so I stuffed my dreams of writing lighthearted mysteries way down inside.

But instead, I excelled at drawing, painting, graphic design, cartooning and photography; anything I could draw, design, capture or paint, I did extremely well. And I still love anything to do with creating art. After my surgery for the pituitary tumor, my passion to help others was bigger than my fear of writing. I knew I would have to write articles and correspond with medical professionals if I wanted to get their help and/or attention.

I created my first flyer, “They Were Right; It Was All in My Head—Pituitary Tumors. The Best Kept Secret in Medicine.” I was scared to death to let anyone see it, but I created a good design layout because of my graphic arts studies, and I finally worked up enough nerve to ask Dr. Kelly to look it over and edit it for mistakes. Dr. Kelly loved it, so after he made a few minor corrections, I was off and running!

The flyer traveled without the help of emails or social media, but rather it was distributed all over the country by people who read it and passed the flyer to someone they thought might have the same disease. This one little flyer helped save so many lives, and it started my patient advocate ball rolling. I took a couple of writing classes because I wanted to learn to be a better writer; one of the classes was to learn how to write for magazines.

I sent out thirteen query letters and got twelve rejections. But when the health editor from Woman’s Day magazine called me and asked if they could buy my story, I said, “I’m a writer; may I write it? And she said, yes! From there I continued writing and publishing my story and raising awareness about Pituitary disease. I’m not sure what was more rewarding, overcoming the challenges that had held me back with dyslexia or raising awareness about Cushing’s to over ten million readers; they both felt amazing.

Nineteen years after my pituitary surgery, it’s finally time for me to write my fun mysteries! I’m working on a three-book mystery series. I’ve finished the first draft, and I’m working on my revisiona. I hope to have, Dying to Date: Looking for Mr. Right but Finding Mr. Wrong, out in 2019; book two: Dying to Marry and book three: Dying to Divorce out after that. My Dying series website and Facebook page are coming soon. Praise to Lillian Nader, my amazing editor for her patience.

My goal is to get involved with speaking for schools to encourage kids not to let people discourage them from their dreams. It will always take hard work, but with dedication and a lot of effort, you can do what you love.

So, what’s next? Any big plans?
I have seen a lot of wonderful progress in  the work Dr. Kelly and his colleagues are doing at the Pacific Neuroscience Institute to advance treatments and improve the quality of life for their patients with cancerous brain tumors, pituitary tumors and so many other areas of the neurosciences. They are truly a comprehensive Center of Excellence.

I plan to continue helping them and their patients, and I am also excited to write my mystery stories. I will continue to use my public platform to help raise awareness for pituitary disease. I hope to have the opportunity one day to inspiring children the importance of reading great books and telling their stories.

Contact Info:

From http://voyagela.com/interview/meet-sharmyn-mcgraw-hormones411-santa-monica/?platform=hootsuite


Women’s Day, March 9, 2004 issue

Woman's Day, March 9, 2004 issue

What’s Wrong with Me?

I’d never heard of Cushing’s disease, until it was revealed as the culprit behind my mysterious illness

By Sharmyn McGraw
Photographed by Brett Panelli

What's Wrong with Me?For years I was a size two. I worked hard to maintain my weight by exercising and eating a healthy diet—I even had a personal trainer. But in 1993, at the age of 31, my body rapidly changed. In four days I gained 11 pounds, and by six months it was 85. I tried eating less and working out more, but my weight just kept going up.

One year and 100 extra pounds later, my appearance was drastically changed. With most of the weight centered around my stomach, I looked as if I were pregnant with twins. My face and chin were round and the back of my neck had a buffalo hump. On top of it all, my thick blond hair began falling out in handfuls.

The anxiety and depression were nearly unbearable. I was a 31-year-old woman with a 227-pound body living in Newport Beach, California, a town south of Los Angeles where there’s no such thing as being too thin. Obesity just does not exist, especially among my peers. As an interior designer, I was often invited to social events, but I was so embarrassed by my appearance that I started avoiding them.

What was going on inside my body was just as troubling. I felt as if I’d had a triple espresso on an empty stomach. I was flying at top speed with constant jitters and chronic indigestion, rarely sleeping more than two hours a night. Mentally and physically, I was exhausted.

Searching for an Answer

While my girlfriends were busy planning their weddings and starting their families, I went from doctor to doctor hoping that someone would figure out what was wrong with me. In seven years, I sought help from more than 15 highly recommended physicians, as well as nutritionists, psychotherapists, an acupuncturist and a naturopath. Pleading my case as if I was on trial for a crime I did not commit, my closing argument was always the same: “I eat a healthy diet and exercise fanatically. This rapid weight gain, anxiety and depression is completely out of my nature.”

Nearly ever doctor I saw, convinced that I was a compulsive overeater with a mood disorder, simply offered advice on dieting and exercise. “Maybe you just think you work out as often as Jane Fonda,” was one physician’s comment.

One doctor labeled me a hypochondriac, and another said I had too much yeast in my system. Over the course of seven years, I also heard that I had fibromyalgia, a spastic colon, acid reflux and a sleep disorder, was prediabetic and premenopausal. I endured painful and expensive medical tests, including two endoscopies, a colonoscopy, a bone marrow biopsy and multiple CAT scans and ultrasounds. I had my thyroid removed and ankle and knee surgery (due to the excess weight on my joints).

During this time, with my family living far away in Illinois, I relied on my friends for support. Many of them were helpful, but some just continued to drop subtle hints about the latest diets they had read about. As for having a relationship—anxiety, chronic muscle pain and uncontrollable diarrhea were just a few of the reasons I stopped dating completely.

As days turned into years, I knew my symptoms were getting worse. My mind was no longer sharp and quick, and I stuttered to complete even simple sentences. I was not sure how much more I could endure, but I was determined that my obituary would not read, “Obese woman dies of unknown causes.”

I gathered all of my medical records and went to work studying every line. I found there was just one thing almost every doctor agreed on: My cortisol level was too high. In fact, it was three times the normal level for this hormone, yet none of the doctors felt that it had anything to do with my laundry list of complaints. By this point, I was fairly certain that it did.

Borrowing a friend’s computer, I went on the Internet and typed in the word “cortisol.” Up popped an article on Cushing’s syndrome, a hormonal disorder caused by excessively high blood levels of cortisol, and there on the screen were every one of my symptoms. I couldn’t believe it! Had I possibly diagnosed myself seven long years after my symptoms began?

Suddenly I remembered that I had seen the word “Cushing’s” in a report from a clinic I’d been to four years earlier. Ironically, the doctors had ruled it out because my eyes weren’t yellow and I didn’t have mouth sores. Now my next step was to convince a doctor that I had this disease.

Finally, a Diagnosis!

I’ll never forget the day I was ushered into the office of endocrinologist Andre Van Herle, M.D., at UCLA Medical Center. I was prepared to once again plead my case. But without knowing anything about me, he simply shook my hand and said, “So you are here because you have Cushing’s.”

This was a doctor with more than 40 years of experience in diagnosing people with the syndrome, and he knew at first glance that I had the physical appearance of someone with the disorder. It was one of the happiest days of my life. I was overwhelmed with emotion, and tears streamed down my face. Most importantly, I realized I was not crazy and someone was willing to help me.

Dr. Van Herle and his colleague, Pejman Cohan, M.D., soon confirmed through blood tests that I did have Cushing’s syndrome. In my case, as in about 70 percent of cases, the problem was a tumor in my pituitary gland that was causing the overproduction of the hormone adrenocorticotropin (ACTH). This hormone stimulates the body’s adrenal glands to produce cortisol, the life-sustaining “fight or flight” hormone, which has many important functions. High amounts of cortisol, however, can wreak havoc, causing rapid weight gain, upper-body obesity, a rounded face, increased fat around the neck, anxiety and depression. Over time, abnormally high levels can even be life-threatening.

The next step was surgery to remove the tumor in my pituitary, located at the base of the brain, but there was one more obstacle. Although my hormone levels indicated I had a tumor, it was apparently so small that it wasn’t picked up on an MRI. So there was a chance that my surgeon, Daniel Kelly, M.D., director of UCLA’s Pituitary Tumor and Neuroendocrine Program, wouldn’t be able to locate it. Thankfully, he didn’t encounter that problem. On April 14, 2000, Dr. Kelly was successful in removing the tiny tumor though an incision in the back of my nasal cavity.

Today, four years later, I am 100 percent cured, and my body and mind are finally free from the horrible effects of Cushing’s. I’ve been able to lose 40 of the 100 pounds that I gained and am confident I can lose the rest. As a volunteer, I help facilitate a UCLA pituitary tumor support group, and I recently spoke to medical students at UCLA School of Medicine, explaining my difficulties obtaining a correct diagnosis. Looking back over nearly 10 years, it’s painful to think about all that I’ve been through. But I am so proud of myself for never giving up. I hope my story will help encourage and empower other women to do the same.

Sharmyn McGraw is a member of the Cushing’s Help and Support Message Boards.


Pituitary Cushing’s: Sharmyn (sharm on the boards) was featured on the Montel Show.

In 1993 at the age of 31, Sharmyn went from a socially acceptable dress size two and full of life to an obese size 22 and barely able to function in just one year. Despite the years of dedication to maintain a shapely muscular body, she suddenly had no control over the rapid weight gain. Her hours of personal fitness training and a healthy diet did nothing to stop the pounds from piling on. Sharmyn gained as much as eleven pounds in four days, 85 pounds in six months and 100 pounds in a year. Soon the weight gain was the least of her health problems; her hair fell out by the handfuls, her stomach stuck out like she was pregnant with twins, emotionally she felt like a misfit, and much more.

For seven horrific years Sharmyn searched the medical community for help, but over and over doctors told her there was nothing medically wrong with her…nothing some good old dieting and exercise couldn’t fix.

In spite of the many years of challenges within our healthcare system, Sharmyn ultimately diagnosed herself via the Internet and was fortunate to find a team of experts at UCLA Medical Center who confirmed her diagnosis. On April 14, 2000. Dr. Daniel Kelly, a world-renowned pituitary neurosurgeon—her angel – successfully removed the tumor and literally gave Sharmyn her life back.

Discuss this TV show.


Pituitary Cushing’s – interview with Sharmyn (sharm on the boards)


Cushing’s disease-Pituitary Gland

Sharmyn McGraw searched for answers for seven years for whatever it was that was killing her; finally she diagnosed herself via the Internet with Cushing’s disease, caused by a pituitary brain tumor.

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MaryO, 31st Pituitary Surgery Anniversary

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Today is the 31st anniversary of my pituitary surgery at NIH.

As one can imagine, it hasn’t been all happiness and light.  Most of my journey has been documented here and on the message boards – and elsewhere around the web.

My Cushing’s has been in remission for most of these 31 years.  Due to scarring from my pituitary surgery, I developed adrenal insufficiency.

I took growth hormone for a while.

When I got kidney cancer, I had to stop the GH, even though no doctor would admit to any connection between the two.

Last year I went back on it (Omnitrope this time) in late June.  Hooray!  I still don’t know if it’s going to work but I have high hopes.  I am posting some of how that’s going here.

During nephrectomy, doctors removed my left kidney, my adrenal gland, and some lymph nodes.  Thankfully, the cancer was contained – but my adrenal insufficiency is even more severe than it was.

In the last couple years, I’ve developed ongoing knee issues.  Because of my cortisol use to keep the AI at bay, my endocrinologist doesn’t want me to get a cortisone injection in my knee.  September 12, 2018 I did get that knee injection (Kenalog)  and it’s been one of the best things I ever did.  I’m not looking forward to telling my endo!

I also developed an allergy to blackberries in October and had to take Prednisone – and I’ll have to tell my endo that, too!

My mom has moved in with us, bring some challenges…

But, this is a post about Giving Thanks.  The series will be continued on this blog unless I give thanks about something else Cushing’s related 🙂

I am so thankful that in 1987 the NIH existed and that my endo knew enough to send me there.

I am thankful for Dr. Ed Oldfield, my pituitary neurosurgeon at NIH.  Unfortunately, Dr. Oldfield died in the last year.

I’m thankful for Dr. Harvey Cushing and all the work he did.  Otherwise, I might be the fat lady in Ringling Brothers now.

To be continued in the following days here at http://www.maryo.co/

 

MaryO: Day 14 of 40 Days of Thankfulness

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From 40 Days of Thankfulness

 

I am thankful, believe it or not, that I had Cushing’s. Mind you, I wouldn’t want to have it now, although diagnoses and surgeries seem “easier” now.

 

Having Cushing’s taught me a lot, including how to stick up for myself, how to read medical books to learn more about my disease, how to do web design, how to navigate NIH. It taught me patience, how to make phone calls. It brought me a lot of new friends.

 

I am also thankful that people are becoming more empowered and participating in their own diagnoses, testing and treatment. Things have changed a lot since my surgery in 1987!

 

 

When I had my Cushing’s over 30 years ago, I never thought that I would meet another Cushing’s patient in real life or online. Back then, I’d never even been aware that there was anything like an “online”. I’m so glad that people struggling with Cushing’s today don’t have to suffer anymore thinking that they’re the only one who deals with this.

 

Because of my work on the websites – and, believe me it is a ton of work! – I have had the honor of meeting hundreds of other Cushies personally at local meetings, conferences, at NIH (the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, MD where I had my final diagnosis and surgery). It occurred to me once that this is probably more Cushies than most endocrinologists will ever see in their entire career. I’ve also talked to countless others on the phone. Amazing for a “rare” disease!

 

I don’t know what pushed me in 1983 when I first noticed I was sick, how I got the confidence and self-empowerment to challenge these doctors and their non-diagnoses over the years. I’m thankful that I didn’t suffer any longer than I did and I’m glad that I have a role in helping others to find the medical help that they need.

 

We Have a New Bio Form!

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We have a new form to add your own bio!

Try it out below…

 

 

Thank you for submitting your bio – sometimes it takes a day or so to get them formatted for the website and listed on the pages where new bios are listed.

If you are planning to check the button that reads “Would you like to be considered for an interview? (Yes or No)” please be sure to read the Interview Page for information on how these interviews work.

Please do not ask people to email you answers to your questions. Your question is probably of interest to other Cushing’s patients and has already been asked and answered on the Message Boards.

Occasionally, people may comment on your bio. To read your bio and any comments, please look here for the date you submitted yours and click on the link.

Please post any questions for which you need answers on the message boards.

 

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MaryO, Pituitary Bio

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Adapted from Participatory Medicine

The Society for Participatory Medicine - MemberThis is kind of a “cheat” post since it’s a compilation of other posts, web pages, message board posts and some original thoughts. I’m writing it to submit to Robin’s Grand Rounds, hosted on her blog.

For all of my early life, I was the good, compliant, patient. I took whatever pills the doctor prescribed, did whatever tests h/she (most always a HE) wrote for. Believed that whatever he said was the absolute truth. He had been to med school. He knew what was wrong with me even though he didn’t live in my body 24/7 and experience what I did.

I know a lot of people are still like this. Their doctor is like a god to them. He can do no wrong – even if they don’t feel any better after treatment, even if they feel worse. “But the doctor said…”

Anyway, I digress.

All this changed for me in 1983.

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. Lots of women lose their periods for a variety of reasons so no one thought that this was really significant.

Then I got really tired, overly tired. I would take my son to a half hour Choir rehearsal and could not stay awake for the whole time. I would lie down in the back of the van, set an alarm and sleep for the 30 minutes.

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 magazine 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 and medical books I bought, 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.

I asked doctors for three years – PCP, gynecologist, neurologist, podiatrist – all said the now-famous refrain. It’s too rare. You couldn’t have Cushing’s. I kept persisting in my reading, making copies of library texts even when I didn’t understand them, keeping notes. I just knew that someone, somewhere would “discover” that I had Cushing’s.

My husband was on the doctors’ sides. He was sure it was all in my mind (as opposed to all in my head!) and he told me to just 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!

Later in 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, like the rings of a tree. 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.

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. Of course, he was sure that he did the diagnosis. No matter that I had been pursuing this with other doctors for 3 years.

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.

When the endo confirmed that I had Cushing’s in 1987 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.

My story goes on and if you’re interested some is on this blog and some is here:

Forbes Magazine | MaryO’s bio | Cushing’s and Cancer Blog | Guest Speakers | Interview Archive 1/3/08 | Cushing’s Awareness Day Testimonial Archive |

Because of this experience in getting a Cushing’s diagnosis – and later, a prescription for growth hormone – I was concerned that there were probably other people not being diagnosed with Cushing’s. When I searched online for Cushing’s, all the sites that came up were for dogs and horses with Cushing’s. Not what I was looking for!

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. This thought percolated through my mind for a few hours and I realized that maybe this was my calling. Maybe I should be the one to start a network of support for other “Cushies” to help them empower themselves.

I wanted to educate others about the awful disease that took doctors years of my life to diagnose and treat – even after I gave them the information to diagnose me. I didn’t want anyone else to suffer for years like I did. I wanted doctors to pay more attention to Cushing’s disease.

The first website (http://www.cushings-help.com) went “live” July 21, 2000. It was just a single page of information. The message boards began September 30, 2000 with a simple message board which then led to a larger one, and a larger. Today, in 2010, we have over 7 thousand members. Some “rare disease”!

The message boards are now very active and we have weekly online text chats, weekly live interviews, local meetings, conferences, email newsletters, a clothing exchange, a Cushing’s Awareness Day Forum, podcasts, phone support and much more. Because I wanted to spread the word to others not on “the boards” we have extended out to social networking sites – twitter groups, facebook groups, twines, friendfeeds, newsletters, websites, chat groups, multiply.com, and much, much more.

People are becoming more empowered and participating in their own diagnoses, testing and treatment. This have changed a lot since 1983!

When I had my Cushing’s over 20 years ago, I never thought that I would meet another Cushing’s patient in real life or online. Back then, I’d never even been aware that there was anything like an “online”. I’m so glad that people struggling with Cushing’s today don’t have to suffer anymore thinking that they’re the only one who deals with this.

Because of my work on the websites – and, believe me it is a ton of work! – I have had the honor of meeting over a hundred other Cushies personally at local meetings, conferences, at NIH (the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, MD where I had my final diagnosis and surgery). It occurred to me once that this is probably more than most endocrinologists will ever see in their entire career. I’ve also talked to countless others on the phone. Amazing for a “rare” disease!

I don’t know what pushed me in 1983, how I got the confidence and self-empowerment to challenge these doctors and their non-diagnoses over the years. I’m glad that I didn’t suffer any longer than I did and I’m glad that I have a role in helping others to find the medical help that they need.

What do *YOU* think? How are you becoming empowered? Comments welcome


• Medicine 2.0 (Toronto, Canada) September 17-18, 2009. Robin Smith (staticnrg), Mary O’Connor (MaryO) and Dr Ted Friedman will be panelists. The topic is “Paying It Forward in the Digital Age: Patient Empowerment 2.0 Using Web 2.0”. Robin submitted this topic. She wrote: Paying it Forward in the Digital Age: Patient Empowerment 2.0 using Web 2.0

An online community is usually defined by one or two things. These come from blogs, websites, forums, newsletters, and more. The emphasis is typically either totally support or education. But sometimes all of these meet. The Cushing’s community, bonded by the lack of education in the medical community and the necessity or self-education has become a community of all of these things.

Mary O’Connor, the founder and owner of the Cushings’ Help website and message boards started with one goal in mind. She wanted to educate others about the awful disease that took doctors years to diagnose and treat in her life. Armed only with information garned from her public library and a magazine article, she self-diagnosed in the days prior to the availability of the internet.

Mary’s hard work and dream have paid off. Others, with the same illness, the same frustrations, and the same non-diagnosis/treatment have been led by MaryO (as she’s lovingly called) to work with her to support, educate, and share.

The Cushing’s Help website soon led to a simple message board which then led to a larger one, and a larger. The site has numerous helpful webpages chock full of information. The members of this community have made a decision to increase awareness of the disease, the research that is ongoing with the disease, the doctors who understand it, and the lack of information about it in the medical field.

From this hub have come multiple Web 2.0 spokes. Many members have blogs, there is a non-profit corporation to continue the programs, a BlogTalkRadio show with shows almost every week, thousands of listeners to podcasts produced from the shows, twitter groups, facebook groups, twines, friendfeeds, newsletters, websites, chat groups and much, much more. The power of Web 2.0 is exponential, and it is making a huge difference in the lives of patients all over the world. It is Empowerment 2.0.

One patient said it well when she said, “Until this all began I was a hairstylist/soccer mom with a high school education. It’s been a learning curve. I am done with doctors who speak to me as if they know all; I know better now.” And she knows better because she’s part of our community. All patients need this type of community.

More info here.


MaryO’s Original Bio

Click on pictures to enlarge.

Christmas 1981Around 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 1986My 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 tumorwith 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 1986I 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 testingWhen 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, BarbadosI 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, aCushing’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” programwhere 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.

Tom O’Connor”

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…

Yea!!!

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.

Update August 19, 2006

I’ve been even more tired than usual now that I’m off GH. I can’t take my arthritis meds, or anything like Excedrin (no NSAIDs) so my joints are nearly always bothering me and I have to wait out any headaches. I’m also just getting over a UTI.

I just had my 3 month post-op CT scans and I hope they come out ok. At first I was grateful that I wouldn’t have to have chemo or radiation come to find out that neither has been discovered yet which works well with kidney cancer. Apparently, it can resurface any time for the rest of my life. I’m hoping that some of the chemo clinical trials show some good results so I can get this thing before it metastasizes somewhere.

I’m having trouble sleeping (1:20 AM here, now) although I’m always tired.

Whine, whine!

On the plus side – I survived the kidney cancer surgery, and it’s almost vacation time!

Even vacation will be bittersweet, though. 2 years ago, Sue went with us on vacation. She had a great time and she had asked if she could go with us again this year. Of course, we had said yes…

Update October 26, 2006

I went to see my Johns Hopkins endo again last week. He doesn’t “think” that my cancer was caused by the growth hormone although it may well have encouraged the tumor to grow faster than it would have.

He was happy to see that I had lost 22 pounds since my last 6 month visit. Not all of that was from surgery! He reminded me that I can take more cortisone, but I hate to do that because I gain weight so fast when I take more.

He thought that my blood pressure was low – for me, not for “normal” people. He took my pressure several times, lying down, getting up quickly. But I never got dizzy. Maybe my pressure increase was temporary when the cancer started. All these mysteries I have that no one can answer.

My energy levels are lower than when I was on GH, and they’re lower again because I had the adrenal removed, because of my panhypopit, because of my cancer even though currently NED, it can come back at any time, because of my GH deficiency…

Every day is a challenge getting up, doing something useful, doing something without arthritic pain and weakness, having the energy to finish even something “easy”. I’m starting to get very depressed over all this. If this is the way the rest of my life is going to be, why bother?

People mostly assume that everything is OK with me because I am not getting chemo or radiation and because I look so “healthy” (thanks to the Cushing’s/daily Cortef!). They figure that if there was any real danger of the cancer metastasizing that I would be on chemo, like other cancer patients do. They don’t understand that I have to wait and pray because there are no approved adjuvant treatments. If/when my cancer returns, it’s just more surgery. If I’m “lucky” enough and get to a stage 4 THEN I can have chemo/radiation as a palliative measure.

Update December 2006

According to my PCP my blood pressure is truly low. But can I go off these bp meds? Nope…because I have only one kidney, these would have been prescribed anyway as a support for my kidney. Can’t win!

I am maintaining my weight loss but none of my clothes are loose, I can’t fit in anything smaller. Belly is still there. So the weight loss is just a numbers game.

Update March 2007

I posted this on the message boards in late February but many missed it and are still asking…

Walking Wounded, the sequel! Wow! I guess I haven’t been on the boards for 2 weeks or so. I see that I have dozens of PMs to read, many emails to check/answer and I missed at least one person who had ordered an Awareness Bracelet that I never sent.

My Monday appointment with the surgeon went ok. He took blood/urine and was going to send me for CT scans. That day, as I recall was very cold here with a wind chill of something like -7o

I came home and taught my piano students, as usual.

Tuesday morning I woke up and my back hurt. I assumed it was from the cold combined with my arthritis. That got worse throughout the day so I called my PCP. Naturally, he was away until the 19th but had a substitute I could see Wed. I didn’t want to wait because the pain was excruciating by now and I couldn’t get out of chairs or sofa without using the walker I had from surgery to help pull me up.

So I called my husband at work and he said he’d come home and take me to the ER. I had been supposed to have handbell rehearsal that night so I called my director and let her know I wouldn’t make it. She assumed that Tom (husband) would be home sooner than he was, so she got the associate pastor from my church and they headed to the ER to wait with us.

They asked about me at the front desk and were assured that I was there although they didn’t see me. I guess they thought I was with the triage nurse or something. So they waited. Then a Melissa O’Connor was called… My people realized it wasn’t me and left.

Finally, Tom got home – he had really important work to do (sarcastically said!) and I got to the ER about 6:00PM. Last time I was there, they told me I had kidney cancer, so I was hoping that there was no rerun of that experience!

The triage nurse let me wait on a gurney instead of one of the hard plastic chairs in the waiting room.

Unfortunately, they also wanted blood and urine. My only good arm had been used by the neurosurgeon the day before. Luckily the nurse finally got the IV in to my other arm. I guess my veins are a bit better post-Cushing’s. No collapses this time.

They did CT scans (so I don’t have to do my surgeon’s ones – YEA!) and XRays and found basically nothing except lung nodules that hadn’t grown much since my last scan – say what? I didn’t know I HAD lung nodules.

I got some percocet and they sent me home with orders to see the sub PCP in 2 days. The percocet didn’t do much except make me sleepy/groggy. My days were spent watching TV and sleeping. Even sitting at the computer or the table was too painful.

Tom took me to the sub PCP on that Friday and she’s sending me to physical therapy.

Until yesterday, I didn’t drive at all, and the weather has been awful, so I haven’t even called about the PT yet.

There is still a little pain, and I need the walker to get out of bed, but I’m doing much better.

A weird side thing – Tom was driving my car since it’s a van and much heavier than his midlife crisis sports car. The van does much better with snow and ice that we had the last couple weeks.

One day he got it home, slammed the door – and the window slid down into the door. Somehow it got off the tracks. Luckily the glass didn’t break. So that was a bit of a problem and $$. No one had ever even heard of this problem before.

Anyway, I hope to get to your PMs, emails and whatever ASAP!

It feels a bit weird being here – like my baby has grown up, left home and doesn’t need me anymore. Can you have Empty Nest Syndrome for message boards? LOL

I have started a new Blog called Cushing’s, Cancer & Music and I plan to keep that updated a little more often than this bio. Rather than the actual events that have taken place, I am letting some of my pent-up feelings out. NOTE: This blog was destroyed by hackers in June 2008 😦 I don’t know when or if I will ever have the energy to rebuild it. Find the newest blog here: Cushing’s and Cancer Blog

Alaskan Cruise, 2007On an Alaskan cruise, June 2007. More about the cruise.

As of the Chicago meeting in July, 2012 I have met 90 members of the message boards (listed as Friends) in addition to Cushies who are NOT on the boards! I have traveled to meet Cushies at NIH in Bethesda, MD, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, New York, Florida, Tennessee, Connecticut, UVa in Southern Virginia and Oregon.

Update October 2018

Well, I haven’t been so great keeping this updated.  I have made other single posts after I went back on Growth Hormone in June, 2017 (Omnitrope this time).   I am posting some of how that’s going here.

No return of cancer (Hooray!)

I’ve developed a new allergy to blackberries

I’ve had a lot of problems with my knees.  This post needs to be updated since I had a cortisone shot in my knee on September 12, 2018 – best thing I ever did, even though my endo will not be happy.

 

I was so stupid way back in 1987 when I thought that all my troubles would be over when my pituitary surgery was over.

And so I wait…


Cushings-Help.com, and quotes from MaryO was included in the Cover Story of this issue of FORBES Magazine, BEST OF THE WEB Issue. The title: “Use With Care” by Matthew Schifrin and Howard Wolinsky.

Hopefully, this kind of mainstream exposure will help increase awareness for this often misunderstood disease. Read the article here.

MaryOVOICE Chat
Listen live to an archived interview from Thursday, January 3, 2008 with MaryO. Achived audio is available through the Podcast page of this siteBlogTalkRadio, the CushingsHelp Podcast or through iTunes Podcasts

Jayne and Robin also hosted a Special Cushing’s Awareness Day live chat April 8, 2008. This chat included a lot of comments about MaryO. Archives are available.

Listen to CushingsHelp on internet talk radio

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Annie, Child With Pituitary Cushing’s

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We’re sharing the story of Annie, who was treated at Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development for Cushing Syndrome.

Thanks to the incredible doctors at NICHD & The NIH Clinical Center, she underwent an extremely successful clinical trial and surgery and is now thriving like a child should.

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Janice (Not So Cushie), Installment 4 of When Angels Knock

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Read Installment 1 here

Read Installment 2 here

Read Installment 3 here


4th installment of

WHEN ANGELS KNOCK

by

Janice Barrett

 

                        CHAPTER 2

     By late afternoon, I am taken out of lockdown and put into room 206, a semi-private room in the mental ward of the hospital. It looks like any other room in any hospital. I have no roommate and don’t like being isolated; it gives me more time to wonder about my wacko behaviour, speculating about whether mom’s disease is inherited. I have my mother’s colouring but my father’s features.  

     Alone in the room, alone in my thoughts, knowing what sent me other the edge, wondering what is happening to my life, I’m startled by a rap on the door. A nurse pokes her head into my room, “The Psychiatrist would like to see you. Follow me,” she says.

     I tag along watching her back not really paying attention to where I am going. There is no nameplate on the door we enter. It’s a stark office with a desk, three chairs and no personal family photographs, books or certificates. Nothing to signal ownership. A white-coated doctor sits behind a desk and looks at me, then drops his pen on his pad. He says thank you to the nurse who leaves, closing the door behind her. 

     He motions to the chair across from his desk. “Have a seat.”

     He is dark skinned and I wonder what nationality he is. Looking at his name badge doesn’t help. There is no way I can pronounce that name.

     “Do you have no any concerns?” he asks.

     I’m sure I must have looked at him shocked. Between his heavy accent and his words, I can’t understand what he’s said. And he’s looking at me like I’m slow, because he says again almost irritated, “Do you have no any concerns?”

     A few more now. They’re growing by the minute. Of course I’m concerned, I’m in a mental ward. Is that a question? How am I to answer that? It’s too general. I need a specific question; concerns about what? About my hospital stay, the room, the nurses, about my life and what part of it? 

     “I think I am paranoid schizophrenic like my mother.”

     There I did it. That’s a legitimate concern. Maybe it will be all right after all.

     “No any paranoid person would walk in my office and articulate that. They would try to hide it and that was the one thing you say first. So you no any paranoid.”

     Oh My God, I think I understand him. I don’t know if that makes things better or worse. And think of the eye doctor when he’s examining your eyes and asks better or worse and when it gets to that point where you just aren’t sure; that’s where I am. But his words are a relief. I’m not schizophrenic. I had worried for years that I would be like my mother. I trust what he says as truth. 

     The Psychiatrist picks up his pen again. “Do you know why you are here?”

     “I went crazy.”

     “You remember?”

     “Yes.”

     “What number medications did you take?”

     “Medications? I don’t know what you mean.”

     And then I recognize Bob’s gym bag on the corner of his desk. He stands up to place the bag between us on the desk.

     “You recognize this?” he asks.

     “Yes, it’s my husband Bob’s gym bag.”

     The Psychiatrist opens the bag. “Your husband find medications. Did you buy?”

     “Yes. They’re vitamin pills.”

      “They are 37 medications.” 

     When the vitamin pills are scattered between three bathrooms and kitchen cupboards, it doesn’t seem a lot until you see them dumped in one bag. Most of these bottles have been kicking around our house for years and are long expired, but getting rid of them is a hassle. You can’t flush them down the toilet or put them in the garbage. I always forget about them on hazardous waste day when I get rid of my paint cans.

     It’s a bag of failure, a multitude of good intentions, inspired by doctors on television, or magazine articles over the past ten years to eat right, exercise and supplement with vitamins. A reminder that, I can’t stick with any program.   

     The Psychiatrist stares into this bag without examining the bottles. He doesn’t even put his hand in the bag to move them around. He sits forward in his chair, looking at me, expecting me to come up with some revelation of some kind. They are frigging vitamin pills. What does he want from me? Yeah there are a bunch, but many of the newer bottles only have a few pills out of them, because when they make my stomach bloat, I stop taking them and try and find other ones which my body can tolerate. He looks at them as some kind of evidence; for what I can’t imagine.       

     “What number medications you take from the bag?”

     “I am not on any prescribed medications from my doctor. I took vitamin A, C, D, E, and the two homeopath liquids my Chiropractor gave me, a liver-detox and lymph something drops.”

     “Here 37 bottles your husband find and put in bag. You take each?”

     “No. Four vitamins and the homeopath stuff.”

     “How you are feeling now?”

     “There’s something physically wrong with me. It’s really serious. Whatever this thing is I have, it’s weird. I’m weak and my stomach bloats up huge.”

     The Psychiatrist lays his pen down, falling back into his chair.

     “I feel like I’m going to collapse, am weak all over and get tired out fast. My head is in a fog and I get confused with pressure in my head. Sometimes my words get mixed up and my eyes are gummy and blurry.”

     He stops looking at me, his eyes roaming the ceiling, his arms crossed. This Psychiatrist is just like my family doctor, Dr. Smith. Just like this Psychiatrist, Dr. Smith won’t even acknowledge that there’s something physically wrong with me. He looks at me like I’m fat and lazy. Like I won’t help myself by dieting and exercise.

     If it weren’t for Nurse Hill, I wouldn’t know what’s wrong with me. She’s the only one who listens and believes me.

                             ***   

     I’m at Dr. Smith’s office so much, I don’t even bother sorting through the magazines. I’ve read them all. Nurse Hill calls my name and takes me to a room she works out of.

     “Dr. Smith is on holidays so you will be seeing a locum doctor,” she says.

     I wonder what kind of a doctor that is; locum at least it isn’t “loco,” but I never question, it isn’t my nature.

     The nurse does the usual blood pressure and temperature.    

     “So how are you feeling?”

     “I’m really sick but I have so many weird symptoms.”

     “Like?” Nurse Hill takes out pen and paper and lists them as I speak. She believes what I’m telling her! I don’t have to convince her I’m sick. I can relax, reassured that she’ll help me.

     Without any hesitation, she says, “This sounds like Cushing’s Disease.”

     She taps diligently on her computer keyboard until the screen displays large letters reading: “Cushing’s Disease and Syndrome. “Yes, you have almost all the symptoms listed here. I’m going to recommend blood work be done to investigate this. The locum doctor will be in shortly,” and she leaves.

     I let out a big sigh. That it could be so easy after all these horrible months of suffering. Back and forth numerous times complaining about these same symptoms, with Dr. Smith dismissing them and me over and over again.

     I wait, hopeful. The locum doctor sits down. He examines me and questions me further and writes out a requisition form for me to take to the lab to have blood work done at eight AM, precisely.

     I’m the first one in line at the lab the next morning. It’s a quick procedure and I am out the door in no time and back home. I check many websites on the internet about Cushing’s disease. The more I read about it, the more certain I am I have it. These sites are describing what is happening to my body.

                            ***

     And now here I am stuck in this hospital when I need to follow up on the blood work results. 

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