August 2013 - Lupus: The Great Imposter

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You’re a young African American woman with the aching, swollen joints of someone twice your age. You’re tired all the time – and hot. You’ve got tender glands and a sensitivity to light that has you reaching for sunglasses whenever you’re in daylight. You’ve developed a rosy-red rash across the t-zone of your face, your hands and upper back. When you take a long, deep breath your chest often hurts and there’s an unusual amount of hair in your comb and hairbrush. What is going on?

Taken separately, these symptoms could represent any number of health conditions. Together, they’re typical of Lupus, an auto-immune disease of unknown origins that strikes one in 250 African American women – a number that means it’s twice as common in women of color as White women.

Although its early symptoms may be perceived as merely annoying, Lupus is a serious, sometimes lethal disease that can progress into debilitating seizures, stroke, hemorrhage, kidney failure and cardiac arrest, especially in Black women who suffer from the most serious forms of the disease.

Lupus is five times more prevalent today than in years past. Science is still wrestling with the origins of Lupus and why it strikes women of color with such fierceness and frequency. Both genetics and environment may be factors. Lupus is often hard to diagnose because its symptoms vary widely from woman to woman and the disease can go into remission for long periods of time producing no symptoms at all. When symptoms do occur, a patient’s complaints of exhaustion, fever or aching muscles can be mistaken for other diseases, dismissed as non-threatening or even psychologically induced. Correct diagnosis can take years of evaluation and testing. In the meantime, many victims become depressed as their condition worsens.

As with any disease, identifying a healthcare team with experience in treating Lupus is important. Victims can also benefit from hearing the stories of others with Lupus.

Because Lupus manifests differently in each woman, treatments are rarely the same for all patients. Instead, they are highly customized and may change often depending on the prevailing symptoms.

Lupus is always serious, but not always deadly. Correct diagnosis, good healthcare and a low-stress lifestyle allow many patients to live productive lives well into old age. If you think you may have Lupus, discuss your symptoms with your doctor.

With you on your Journey to Wellness,
Dr. Mary S. Harris

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