Thursday, 31 May 2012

Progress Report

Long time no post! In fact, I returned from my holiday a week ago and have just been lazy incredibly busy and productive.

I am in fact on study leave from work at the moment, so technically I should be drawing a big spider diagram using my favourite set of coloured pens right now,* but as I have one heck of a pituitary tumour headache right now I am slacking off to write this message to my adoring public. Whoop whoop!

It has now been four weeks since my last trip to the hospital, when my endocrinologists told me they would call me in "a couple of days" to arrange an overnight stay filled with fun metabolic tests and delicious hospital food. They have still not called me, although I have called them twice and both times spoken to a receptionist who could not help beyond sending a note to the relevant doctors. I would be less annoyed about this if it weren't for the fact that I have to stay off my medication until they get these bloody tests done and consequently all my symptoms (fast heartrate, shaky hands, hair falling out, etc etc) have been worsening slightly.

The worst of the worsenings has been how hungry I have been getting! Oh my god. It is deeply irritating! I can tell my metabolism has gone up because I am just so darn peckish all the time. It sounds stupid but it's really annoying to live with.

Anyway, I realise that this is basically a super dull post, so I will end it here. Hurrah!

*Not a joke. I do this.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

The Ugliest Woman In The World

Today's post was inspired by a suggestion from one of my lovely commenters - I have forgotten who (sorry!), but thank you anyway for the idea.

Mary Ann Bevan was known as the Ugliest Woman in the World. She suffered from acromegaly, a condition in which her pituitary produced too much growth hormone, which led to deformity of her face and abnormal growth, as well as headaches and joint problems. After the death of her husband, she was forced to support herself and her four children by working in the freak show at Coney Island in the 1920s.

Mary Ann Bevan
In 2006, Hallmark produced and sold a greetings card in the UK which featured a picture of Bevan and the legend: "When the screen went back, he was to always regret the words . . . ‘I’ll go for number three, Cilla.’”

Dr Wouter de Herder, a Dutch endocrinologist who was on holiday in England, recognised the photograph and complained to Hallmark. According to theis article, he said: "“I immediately recognised the photo as I had just written an article about Mary Ann Bevan... She was in several [freak] shows in England and then later in the United States, but she led a miserable, painful life. I simply don’t think its right in 2006 to use her image to create a sick birthday card. I feel that this card is insulting to all patients who suffer from the same condition.”

Ironically, his words in fact echoed those of the famous neurosurgeon Harvey Cushing eighty years earlier, who attempted to treat Mary Ann Bevan towards the end of her life. He wrote to Time magazine in 1927, complaining of the way it had made fun of Bevan: “This unfortunate woman who sits in the sideshow of Ringling Brothers [...] has a story which is far from mirth-provoking,” wrote Dr Cushing.“She, previously a vigorous and good looking young woman, has become the victim of a disease known as acromegaly . . . Being a physician, I do not like to feel that Time can be frivolous over the tragedies of disease.” Bevan died just six years later.

I've written before about the difficulties facing women with acromegaly, but I think this story really hammers the message home. In eighty years, it seems that although our ability to treat this debilitating disease has improved greatly, our attitudes to its sufferers have hardly changed.

Hallmark pulled the card from stores, but not before its communications manager issued this memorable statement: “Once we found that this lady was ill, rather than simply being ugly, then the card was [...]withdrawn immediately, as it would breach anything we would do in terms of taking the mick out of anyone who was poorly.”

Ugly yet healthy people - be warned.

Monday, 21 May 2012

IMFW: Blood and Sunscreen

I am in fact on holiday this week, but as I'm so dedicated to this blog I thought I'd type up an Interesting Medical Fact of the Week in advance and let it post automatically in my absence.

But I didn't want to type too much.

Here's an interesting article about how scientists can make human serum albumin, a component of blood, out of everyday rice.

And as it's that summer season, and I'm an unusually pallid person, here's a reminder to always wear sunscreen.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

5 Things Healthy People Miss Out On

Over at Cushie Bloggers for the month of April, some bloggers took part in the Cushing's Awareness Challenge during April; the aim was to blog about something to do with Cushing's Disease every day of April. Well, I don't have Cushing's Disease, and it's now May. But the Challenge includes a list of prompts and suggestions of topics for bloggers with Cushing's disease to write about, and it looks like a good list to me for anyone with a pituitary adenoma to co-opt.

So, my first post from the list is in honour of both Cushing's Awareness and TSHoma Cognisance. And in fairness, I strongly suspect that awareness of thyroid-stimulating-hormone-producing pituitary adenomas is even lower than awareness of Cushing's Disease...

I like to think I am a fairly optimistic and sunny person, so instead of going down the depressing route, I have decided to start with a post focusing on the awesome aspects of being sick. Presenting:

Or: Why It Is Great To Be Me and Be Ill 

1. You always have an excuse.

"Excuse me, madam, but you would appear to have inadvertently stabbed this man".
"Oh, I'm so sorry officer, it must be my brain tumour playing up again. Forgive me."
"Not at all, my good woman. Please continue about your business. And get well soon!"

In fact, I never have stabbed a man, but I fondly imagine that were I to do so, this is roughly how the conversation with the policeperson would go afterwards. Having a tumour in your head is rubbish, but it's one hell of an opportunity to get away with doing what you want.

Want a seat on the bus? Mention the tumour.
Late for a deadline? Mention the tumour.
Want to freak out a stranger? Mention the tumour.
In detail.

2. Improved and terrifying knowledge of medical terminology.

You know, if I didn't have a pituitary adenoma, I would never have heard of adrenocorticotrophic hormone, let alone be able to pronounce it. And now, not only do I have an expanded vocabulary for actual words, but I know the abbreviations too. I know that my form for TFT bloods will check my TSH, FT3 and FT4 - plus usually my endocrinologist requests SHBG and alpha subunit. Because that is just how he rolls.

3. A warm and fuzzy glow about UK taxation.

You know what I don't mind? When, at the end of the month, my paycheck is shrunk by several hundred pounds thanks to paying tax and National Insurance contributions. You know why I don't mind it? Because one monthly dose of lanreotide costs more than twice what I pay in tax. And that's not including the costs of my regular visits to the doctor, the nurse, the hospital, my other prescriptions, my MRI scans, my surgery, my blood tests.

I can't imagine how horrendous it would be to have to pay for this stuff in a country without a decent national healthcare system.

4. Joie De Vivre

It sounds pretty cheesy to say that being ill gives you a newfound appreciation for life. That's because it is a cheesy thing to say. However, it is also true. The feeling of achievement when, after pituitary surgery, you manage to very slowly walk the ten minutes to the nearest pub is as satisfying as learning to play the tuba. Probably more satisfying, in fact. After all, I've never met a happy tuba player.*

5. Writing this blog

I would never in a hundred years have managed to keep up writing a blog this long (since last August… that's ten months!) if I had not been ill. No matter what topic I picked, it would surely have lapsed, just like every other diary I've ever attempted to write has lapsed, usually within about a week. But writing so often has been really good for me; it's improved my style, it's made me more comfortable with just sitting down and typing - and searching for Interesting Medical Facts of the Week has taught me a hell of a lot. And being ill is what has made me keep this up. I can't ever lapse for long, because there's always going to be something I want to complain about.

*Disclaimer: I have never met a tuba player.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

*Censored* (A Rant)

Oh god, I hate hospital administration systems.

Two weeks ago, I went to the hospital. My doctors wanted to keep me off my medication for 6 weeks, despite the fact that this would worsen my symptoms, so that they could run some tests and do some scans while it was out of my system. They said they would arrange for one of their research people to call me and arrange the tests. I pointed out whilst I was standing right there with them that as I have exams and a holiday coming up, there would be some dates I couldn't do, but that I could write these dates down and hand them over immediately so as not to waste time.

No, they said, that's fine. I would get a telephone call in the next couple of days, no worries.

Two weeks later, no bloody telephone call, and I'm going on holiday for a week tomorrow. I don't have a number I can speak to any of them on directly, the best I can do is call one of the doctors' receptionist, who is only in for three mornings a week. So I called her yesterday morning and left a message pointing out that if they wanted to arrange these tests before I left, they would need to get their freaking act together.*

Today at lunchtime I managed to miss the receptionist returning my call. There were no apologies for the massive delay; she left a message saying there was no prospect of getting me booked in today and that I should call back on my return from holiday. There was also no explanation of how this went from being the hospital's responsibility to call me to being my responsibility to call the hospital.

Sadly, I am incapable of shouting swearwords at my phone loudly enough to make myself feel better.

It is so unbelievably frustrating that this seems to happen almost every time anything hospitacular has to be arranged. Oh, your surgery's postponed at the last minute. Oh, your surgery's now back on with less than 24 hours notice. Oh, your letter got lost in the mail. Oh, didn't I mention that you're going to be booked in for an overnight stay? Oh, your MRi appointment never got booked? Well there's no point in you sitting here in this neurosurgical aftercare appointment then! Bye!

This means that three weeks will have gone by before I get booked in for ANY of these arsemongering tests and scans. On my return from holiday, I have exams. Essentially, this "six week period off medication" just got extended to an "indefinite period until we can be bothered to get back to you, lol." They really have no clue how shitty it is to seesaw on and off taking this stuff. Every time I start/stop taking it, there's a bunch of side effects - it messes up my skin and appetite and stuff - on top of the symptoms I get anyway when I'm not on it (heart too fast, hair falling out, etc. etc).

In my now-lengthly experience, it seems that hospital doctors are completely clueless about the barrage of administration that patients have to maneuver through in order to ever actually see them. Once, a letter that was sent to me giving a time and date for an MRi scan was lost in the post. I knew I was expecting an appointment, so when I didn't get a letter, I called the endocrine department, the MRi department, the main hospital switchboard and even I think neurosurgery for good measure, to try to find out if an appointment had been booked. Everyone told me they had no idea, had no means of finding out, and no clue who I should speak to - except the MRI department, who told me that I definitely didn't have an MRi booked. About two months later, the letter eventually turned up, by which time I'd obviously missed it. At my next appointment with my endocrinologist, he actually attempted to give me a telling off for missing an appointment, and then clearly refused to believe me when I explained what happened.

Well, this has been a massive rant. I do feel slightly better. But I am still pissed off.

*Except obviously I was politer than that.

Monday, 14 May 2012

IMFW: Brain Injuries in Sport

An interesting story that has been popping up now and again for the last few months concerns brain injuries in the US NFL (National [American] Football League), so that's what we're focusing on in this week's Interesting Medical Fact of the Week.

American Football is obviously a high-contact sport, hence the crazy amounts of protective gear the players wear - including helmets. However, evidence has been mounting for some time that all this protective gear may not be enough.

Several high-profile former players have killed themselves in the last few years. Dave Duerson committed suicide in February 2011, after texting his family to request that his brain be donated to the NFL's "brain bank" - namely, the Centre for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, which was set up by former athletes to investigate the long-term effects of the concussions suffered by sportspeople and military personnel.

The Centre focuses on studying chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which is a progressive, degenerative disease of the brain. As early as the 1920s, there was recognition that this condition particularly affected boxers, but it now appears that it is also associated with repeated brain trauma (i.e. concussions or other head injury). Professional American football players, ice hockey players and those involved in sports such as wrestling, are particularly likely to sustain these kinds of injuries.

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy is a nasty illness. Much like Alzheimer's Disease, it involves the build-up of tau proteins in the brain, and the initial symptoms of memory loss, confusion, depression, and self-control problems eventually lead to full-blown progressive dementia with some symptoms of Parkinson's Disease.

When Duerson's brain was studied, researchers found that the repeated trauma to his head during his professional career appeared to have caused severe damage. One of the difficulties with chronic traumatic encephalopathy is that there can be a significant latency period between the original injuries and the appearance of recognisable symptoms; however, along with Duerson, many other former NFL players - and those involved in other high-contact sports - have been diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy after their deaths. Chris Henry, another American football player who died after falling from a moving vehicle, was the first player to be posthumously diagnosed with CTE while still active as a professional sportsman; but the earliest signs of the disease have even been found in the brain of an 18-year-old student athlete.

As well as Duerson, former professional footballers Junior Seau and Ray Easterling also recently committed suicide. Along with several other American football players, Easterling was involved in a class action lawsuit against the NFL over its handling of concussion-related injuries, which alleges that the NFL continuously denied any knowledge of a connection between NFL players sustaining repeated head injuries and the later development of dementia or CTE. In addition to this, another lawsuit was recently launched on behalf of over 100 former professional players, claiming that the NFL repeatedly denied the existence of any connection.

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy is a very rare disease, and one of the difficulties in researching it is that it can only be definitively diagnosed post mortem. But the work of the Centre for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy is already causing waves in the world of American football, and there have already been calls for changes to the game's regulations, effectively banning head contact from the game. The Centre's research is still ongoing, so whether that will actually happen remains to be seen.

But are those helmets enough?

If you're interested in this topic and would like to find out more, I recommend the Centre's very informative website, which also has a selection of case studies you can read about.

Friday, 11 May 2012

Ding Ding: Round Two

I had been holding off posting for a few days, not out of laziness,* but because I was waiting to find out the outcome of my hospital appointment last Thursday. And then it took me absolutely ages to type this up because, let's face it, it's dull and complex. For the last couple of months I have been largely in the dark as to the results of my blood tests and recent MRi scan, so I really had no idea what to expect.

What I did not expect was to find the television in the endocrine waiting room playing Cash In The Attic. This television has, to my knowledge, never previously displayed anything other than The Jeremy Kyle Show. I always assumed that the hospital trust had performed some kind of patient survey and determined that diabetics and people with pituitary tumours prefer their televisual experiences to involve shouting, paternity testing, and the phrase "Madam, you disgust me".

I digress.

First up, as per usual, I was weighed (lost: one kilogram since February, almost certainly due to forswearing chocolate over Lent rather than the TSH-oma) and had my blood pressure taken (standing blood pressure: 118/76 - score! It would appear that switching my heart medication back to propranolol has made a difference). Then I had a quick review with one of the endocrinologists about how my symptoms have changed since being on lanreotide injections (not much).

Then the doctor ran away and eventually returned with two other endocrinologists in tow, who all stood at the other end of the room and surveyed me like something interesting they'd found in a jar at the Hunterian Museum.**

They have been somewhat confused by the fact that my levels of various thyroid hormones have remained roughly the same since being on the lanreotide injections, despite the fact that you would expect them to drop.

Additionally, the MRI scan of my pituitary was a little tricky to interpret. Essentially, the pituitary gland is like a tiny upside-down lollipop just below your brain. The stick of the lollipop is called the infundibular stalk*** and it connects the pituitary gland to the hypothalamus. My original MRI pituitary scan showed a great big gobstopper lollipop with a dark patch of necrosis in the middle, where the tissue inside the tumour had died off a bit. To picture this, first imagine a lollipop with a liquid centre, and then imagine something a lot more disgusting. But my latest scan shows a rather more normal-sized lollipop which hasn't grown since my surgery (hurrah!). However, the stick of the lollipop is slightly bending to one side.

Given that there's limited space inside your head for these things to grow, a wonky pituitary stalk can indicate that the bulk of a tumour is pushing the rest of the pituitary gland to one side. So the area of pituitary gland on the left-hand side is now under suspicion. I have to say, looking at the scans was kind of awesome, because it's not like when people show you the ultrasound of their baby and you have to pretend you totally see what they're talking about. I actually could see what they were talking about.

But the problem with MRIs is that they can show you what's there, but not what it's doing. So although it looks like there's probably a bit of tumour left on one side of my pituitary gland and that may well be what's still causing my symptoms, it's still possible that it's not that bit at all. And it would be rubbish to have surgery, take that bit out and then discover it was actually healthy pituitary tissue.

So my doctors want me to have two combined PET/CT scans. PET (Positron Emission Tomography) scans are super colourful and pretty, but that's not the only reason they want me to have one (I hope).

PET scan of the brain

 Basically, PET scans can show those areas of the pituitary that are most metabolically active. Inactive areas are dark. So the idea is that I will have one of these scans while not on any kind of medication, which should show the whole pituitary lit up like a christmas tree, and then have another scan after three months on a higher dose of lanreotide, which should suppress the hormone production in the TSHoma. Any areas that go from being bright blue on the first scan to being dark in the second scan are probably tumour. Then, if the tumour is in an easily-accessible area of my head, I might have surgery again. If it's somewhere tricky to reach, I'll probably just continue to have regular injections of lanreotide indefinitely.

So I'm not having any more lanreotide injections for six weeks, so that it's definitely completely out of my system. And in the meantime they want to have me come in overnight one for some research tests on my metabolism and things. Essentially the hospital are collecting patients with pituitary tumours that produce TSH and studying us, so I am now officially a guinea pig.

*How could you ever think such a thing?

**I'm joking, they were very nice.

***Or just the pituitary stalk, but you don't get to use a word like "infundibular" every day.

Monday, 7 May 2012

IMFW: Signed In Blood

Exciting news recently about a new test to identify people's blood groups, which was allegedly inspired by Voldemort's evil self-writing diary in the Harry Potter books. When a blood sample is applied to the paper, it actually spells out the person's ABO and Rhesus blood groups, the idea being that this is far more user-friendly and should reduce misinterpretations of blood group compared to the existing tests.

Warning: side effects may include possession by the Dark Lord.