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Surviving Cushing’s: Area woman hit by rare disease

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Gina Gregoire Helton is certain if she had a dollar for every time she has heard the word “rare,” she’d be a rich woman.

She has a lot to be thankful for. She’s been married to Sean, the love of her life, since 2011. She has a warm, gregarious family consisting of eight sisters, three brothers, over 30 nieces and nephews and two loving parents, Charles and Denise Gregoire of DeWitt.

But in April 2012, Helton started to experience disturbing symptoms. She had sudden-onset hip pain. A few months later, she had unexplained hair loss and breakage. Deep, red and purple stretch marks, also known as striae, started appearing on her skin.

They were painful and she credits them for essentially saving her life.

“They were the ‘red flag’ that something was definitely not right,” Helton says.

She went to see her doctor, Dr. Jennifer Bell at Genesis Health Group in DeWitt, who admitted she was stumped. Yet, based on the presence of the striae, Bell wanted to test one more thing – Helton’s cortisol levels.

Cortisol is a life-sustaining adrenal hormone that influences, regulates or modulates many of the changes that occur in the body in response to stress. Those changes include blood sugar (glucose) levels, fat, protein and carbohydrate metabolism to maintain blood glucose; immune responses; and anti-inflammatory actions.

As it turned out, her levels were abnormally high. Bell referred her to a specialist in the endocrinology department at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics (UIHC) in Iowa City. Cortisol levels fluctuate throughout the day, but further testing showed Helton’s levels consistently remained extremely elevated.

That was the first time she had ever heard of Cushing’s disease.

Helton had nearly every single symptom of the disease that affects less than 200,000 people in the United States.

In addition to hip and back pain, hair breakage and stretch marks, she suffered from moon face, frequent bruising, depression and anxiety, weight gain, frequent urination, high blood pressure and muscle atrophy.

“I was extremely relieved to have a diagnosis,” Helton says. “At the same time, I was scared as I started to learn more about Cushing’s disease and what it can do to your body. There are people dying from this because of improper diagnosis. I was blessed my doctor at UIHC was educated on the disease.”

Most individuals diagnosed with Cushing’s have a tumor on their pituitary or adrenal glands.

Helton’s tumor, however, was located on her lung. Fortunately, her doctor decided to scan that area of her body and discovered the tumor.

In November, Helton underwent surgery to remove the tumor in her chest. However, during the procedure, some microscopic-sized tissue was left behind. So, in January, she found herself in the operating room once again. However, in order to get rid of the remaining tissue, the surgeons’ only option was to remove Helton’s entire left lung.

The situation went from bad to worse when it was discovered the tumor was malignant. It was a very rare tumor called a carcinoid tumor. These tumors are slow-growing cancers that typically start in the lining of the digestive tract or lungs.

After they took her lung, doctors noticed the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes. Members of the oncology department recommended chemotherapy and radiation as treatment.

Because her particular condition is so rare, doctors cannot say definitively what Helton’s prognosis is. Living with only one lung, her physical activity is restricted. Yet, Helton is partaking in water exercise to help ease the pain in her hips and keep her muscles strong. While climbing the stairs is a major obstacle, she intends to participate in the next Fight for Air Climb in Des Moines sponsored by the American Lung Association.

It may take her longer to reach the top than most, but she has made it her goal to finish.

Helton also plans to become an advocate for the Cushing’s disease community. She has yet to meet anyone else in person who suffers from the condition, but has connected with hundreds of them through social media.

In particular, Helton has made contact with Dr. Karen Thames from Chicago. She has been diagnosed with Cushing’s and is working on a documentary called “The War to Survive Cushing’s Disease.”

Helton says the experience has dramatically changed her attitude and outlook on life. She no longer “sweats the small stuff” and her relationships with her loved ones have become stronger.

As for people who are experiencing any of the symptoms associated with Cushing’s, Helton encourages them to seek help.

Even if there are no immediate answers, don’t give up.

“If you are experiencing something with your body that doesn’t seem right, keep seeking help. There is a doctor out there somewhere that will help you. We all know our bodies and when something is wrong.

“My faith and relationship with God has grown tremendously. I count my blessings daily. That is the silver lining. My favorite quote is, ‘Everyone you meet may be fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always.'”

via Surviving Cushing’s: Area woman hit by rare disease.

Magdalena, Food-Dependent Cushing’s Bio

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Magdalena is from Windsor, Ontario (Originally Poland). She has Food-Dependent / GIP-Dependent Cushing’s Syndrome. This means that genetically, she has cells on her adrenals that are only supposed to be in her intestines. They respond to a polypeptide hormone (GIP) that is produced in response to food. So when she eats, the hormone triggers her adrenal glands and they produce cortisol. It is an ectopic response that is ACTH-independent.

A Golden Oldie last updated 01/22/2008.

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Hi, I am 22 years old now, at diagnsis. I have a rare form of cushing’s syndrome called food-dependant cushing’s syndrome. Sometimes it is referred to as gip-dependant cushing’s syndrome. This means that genetically, I have cells on my adrenals that are only supposed to be in my intestines. They respond to a polypeptide hormone (GIP) that is produced in response to food. So I eat, the hormone triggers my adrenal glands and they produce cortisol. It is an ectopic response that is acth-independant.

I am writing this bio because it was very hard to find this disease, and it was like nothing else, even normal cushing’s fit rather loosely.

I began having problems at age 12, but the disease did not “blow up” till I was 19. When i was 12, I started having stomach pains. First, the doctors said it was apendicitis, then my period, then lactose intolerance. This was on and off, and I kept eliminating foods that I thought i might be allergic too.

When I was 15, the problem intensified. I lost my period and my stomach aches grew worse; I noticed that my stomach was quite swollen after a normal meal, and everyone elses was not. I assumed that it was my fault and I should eat healthier.

Unfortunately, the stomache aches grew worse till my stomach swelled even below my breastbone and I could barely breathe. I started eating very little and very thought out proportions of food, often feeling that I was doing this to myself and then feeling that this couldn’t be normal.

At 17, I started getting really annoyed that my face was so swollen all the time and my skin so bad; I thought i was just ugly. I was quite thin at 5’5″ and 105lbs, but with a very swollen face and stomache. This was getting out of control, the pain was worse, and I was getting thinner. My yelled at me in class because I wasn’t jumping high enough and I told her it hurt cuz of my stomach, she told me I was too thin and that I probably had an eating disorder.

I was in so much pain, I would have gone to a doctor for a monkey growing out of my head. I went to the eating disorder doctor, I told her my stomach hurt. She told me I had an eating disorder (no kidding.) I was put into a group where they would feed me. Over the next two years, I was put on many antidepressants, fed weight gainers, but the pain grew worse and I grew thinner.

Eventually, they put me in the hospital where the problem grew much worse. I couldn’t even lay down because the food would come back up to my throat and I started having a problem with constipation. Nausea became a problem; thank God I only threw up once in my life, when I was five and I had the flu. I have never had a high temperature since, or thrown up since. This should have been a sign that something was wrong with my immune system, but no one listened. For some reason, my cholesterol was very high and I had a fatty liver. Needless to say, there was no improvement and I signed myself out after 6 weeks.

I knew there was something wrong. I was 19 and the pain was worse. I left my eating disorder doctor with the same complaint that I had come with. So she said that I had IBS. I knew that couldn’t be it, because it never went away, it only got worse, and it had nothing to do with stress or the type of food I ate. To the day of my diagnosis, I thought IBS was a bullshit diagnosis- we don’t know what’s wrong yet…

At 19 something odd happened, i started gaining weight very fast and my ankles and knees started hurting. I was pushing through the pain to eat because life was hard, but I started gaining weight too fast. I went off to a musical theatre conservatory in Feb 04 and disaster struck. I blew up like a balloon, my face looked awful and my stomach would hurt to the point I would become paralyzed. It hurt to breath and I could barely walk upright sometimes. I came home and we went through the diagnosises; pancreatitis, ibs, psychosis, eating disorder, lupus, diabetes, thyroid and celiac disease.

It looked like celiac disease so I eliminated bread, but little changed. It was winter and I could barely shower and comb my hair because I had so little energy. The weight would come on so fast that my skin hurt to touch, and my eyes were swollen shut. I also thought i was psycho, but a little voice said I couldn’t be.

The next october the same cycle occurred, really quick weight gain, fatigue, sweats, and blurry vision. Independant university study was hard, but I got through it. That May and everything started going down, I could exercise again. However, the fatigue, nausea, stomach pain and occasional flareups were a rollercoaster. I know now that these are signs of adrenal insufficiency because my acth was still suppressed. The flareups made me feel crazy, that i was doing this to myself by eating.

The third time this cycle happened was much more painful. It was sept. 06 and I was going to university again. The bachelor of design was tough and I had to focus so much on staying healthy. Going to the gym everyday to sweat so that my swelling would go down. Watching what I ate, doing an IBS diet. I realized I couldn’t digest fruit or vegetables. I kept going to endocrinologist because I had no period and my dhea was high (which worried my gynecologist), but they all said it was nothing. My stomach aches occurred after eating, and even drinking water. The doctor at my school told me that I should know how to stop eating and drinking (He was a really fat, sweaty guy too). I had constipation for 10 days straight and laxatives barely worked. I had such swollen lymph nodes that I tasted raw blood in my throat and could barely swallow. Needless to say, I came home.

I ended up in the hospital at Christmas. The ER doctor and gastroenterologist both said there must be a endo problem because I had been constipated for 10 days, colonoscopy laxatives weren;t working, and my intestines and bladder was so full they couldn’t see on the Ct scan.

I finally went to an endocrinologist in Toronto, Dr. Rosario Briones-Urbina. I suggested Cushing’s, she said I was too skinny. Though I had just gone from 110lbs to 130lbs in two weeks. She agreed to test me in Jan. The test came out 550 out of a max of 250. She waited three months to do the dexamethasone and it was too late, it was march and my cortisol had gone to 90 (the min. was 60). She said she had never seen such a quick cycle.

I wanted to show her just how fast the cycle was; I took a UFC one day that came out 90, the next day I had a party, ate just like everyone else, but got a paralyzing stomach ache and sweats. I did a UFC the next day and it came out 350 (max 250). She was shocked. She said my symptoms fit an extremely rare form called food-dependant cushing’s. Unfortunately, the testing is not standard and I am waiting for it. After it is done, I will have a bilateral adrenalectomy.

If you got this far in my story, thank you for baring with me. I haven’t found a story like mine and wanted to share it, cuz I spent so much time looking. Over two years, I saw 24 specialists. I don;t know how I got through it, I must of been quite a witch with a B. However, I kept pushing. I studied at home independantly to keep me going and have now been accepted to medical school.

The most important advice i have to give is this:

    1. GO TO A TEACHING/RESEARCH HOSPITAL!!!
    2. If you have kids, think twice before eating disorder treatment. I went into the program with pain and a method of coping. I came out with an eating disorder psyche, bad experiences, and a truckload of pills that were making me crazy.
    3. IF YOU THINK YOU HAVE FOOD DEPENDANT CUSHINGS, HERE IS HOW I COPE;
      • the cortisol goes up with too much of any protein, fat or carbs. I eat small turkey/cheese sandwiches at every meal (enough to be full, but well balanced).
      • I use stevia instead of sugar because its natural (health food isle.)
      • alcohol really hurts now, so only a little wine occassionally.
      • lots of yogurts.
      • every couple days a mixture of senna laxative and stool softener (not too often)
    4. Remember the squeekiest wheel gets the grease.

Lee B, Ectopic (pituitary and lung tumor) Bio

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Another Golden Oldie, Lee had both pituitary and lung tumors.  This bio was originally posted 06/07/2008.

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Whee1 where to start!. During 2002 noticed that I had extreme daily hair loss, weight gain even while on diet, depression and general feeling of not being well and decreased sleep and change in sleep pattern. Went to a psychologist who said I was “sane” and diagnosed me with depression related to organic disease.. but what? the fatigue increased – looked like a walking zombie and could barely make it through the day. I worked in a very high powered job. Started experiencing rapid heartbeat – and landed up twice in the ER. Before going to the cardiologist I had a chest xray and saw a shadow on my lung. As an ex-smoker I was concerned and ordered a CT with contrast. I am an RN with a background in Oncology. to cut a long story short, landed up at the oncologist who agreed with me regarding the need for a biopsy. I had to fire my GP who told me to wait another 6 months and do a repeat. I diagnosed myself with a carcinoid tumor, had the upper part of my right lung removed.

I kept on complaining of increased symptoms – moon face, fatigue, headaches, joint pain etc. Got diagnosed with sleep apnea. My oncologist pooh poohed everything but further staining of my lung tumor indicated that it was secreting ACTH – Cushings!

Had a brain MRI – my sella is totally empty and I have a 7mm tumor – not sure what even after 3 MRI’s. Had a full endocrine workup – the endocrinologist siad everything was fine! HA! Turned out I have Hashimoto’s with thyroid cancer – just had that removed. My thyroid was so swollen including the lymph nodes which made me suspicious for metastases- that they could not visulize the Recurrent Nerve – so now I have permanent vocal cord damage and cannot work.

Before this I decided to go to see Dr Friedman. What a blessing. I have adrenal insufficiency, he thinks intermittent Cushings from another carcinoid tumor, who knows where and extreme growth hormone deficiency. I need to have the pituitary tumor removed but am awaiting recovery after my thyroid operation.

I feel terrible – cannot really function, cry all the time, have severe headaches, joint aches, nausea etc. I hope and pray that the pituitary operation will fix up my problems.

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