Mast Cell Madness.

I’m officially terrified by my mast cells because Christmas heralded another sick, sick few days. Almost as sick as Thanksgiving, so I’d have to say the 2nd sickest night of my life. However, this time, it all started with my tongue swelling up, which gave me more insight into the mechanism behind it.

I sometimes wonder if all my health issues stem from mast cell activation syndrome. I can tell the difference between ME symptoms and mast cell reactions, but, still, there’s this little seed in my brain that says, what if they’re at the root of EVERYTHING and I should be spending my time finding a doctor with MCAD expertise on this side of the country (it doesn’t seem to exist in Seattle)? I don’t do this because I am generally stable. On a day-to-day basis, I’m not having reactions — unless, of course, many of my chronic symptoms have mast cell degranulation at their core and I just don’t realise it.

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My health issues started with full-blown anaphylaxis, out of the blue, 9 days after my 28th birthday. Doctors were hopeless and gave no advice back then, not even daily preventative antihistamines. The common denominator was alcohol (but not every time I drank, so it was confusing), so, after the last trip to the emergency room in Dublin, where I almost died, I finally quit drinking and haven’t touched a drop in 13 years.

Before that, I had swelling in my eyes and hands and a severe edema episode once or twice that I didn’t really think much about. I linked it to Asian food, so stopped eating that and MSG and didn’t look any further into it. This was eventually diagnosed as autoimmune urticaria and angioedema and I was told to take Zyrtec, but didn’t want to medicate daily for an intermittent condition.

I’ve always had trouble with my periods — crippling dysmenorrhea — but they got progressively worse until I collapsed with syncope and shock 13 days after my 32nd birthday and was taken off in the ambulance. For 6 years, no doctor gave me any advice until, finally, an OBGYN told me to dump salt on my tongue. This doesn’t stop the collapses, but it certainly helps. These episodes continue to happen randomly to this day, always on the first day of my period and are, without a doubt, mast cell mediated, presumably low-grade anaphylaxis (very low blood pressure and pulse, bowel problems, syncope, shortness of breath).

anaphylaxis scale

I have a spot in my throat that has itched for years. It was actually the thing that lead to diagnosis of my toxic thyroid goiters and Grave’s Disease because I mentioned the itch to some random doctor who palpated my throat. I’ve now realised it signals reactivity in my body at a very low level. It’s almost always there, but, when it’s not or when it’s very bad, I pay attention.

I was flushing badly for years, thinking I had developed bizarre self-consciousness, but the self-consciousness was actually a result from flushing and having people point it out! When I was diagnosed with Grave’s, I thought it was a symptom of that, but it never went away after ablation.

Of course, in retrospect, there have always been issues I have dealt with, which may or may not originate with mast cells: thyroid problems and Raynaud’s can be a result of mast cell disorders. Also, constipation, headaches, low blood pressure, and temperature sensitivity (all of which got much worse in recent years). Finally, many of my ME symptoms could also be from MCAS: fatigue, joint and tissue pain, eye pain, vision problems, vertigo, episodes of low body temperature, scent/odour/chemical sensitivity, sinus problems, cognitive impairment, hair loss, decreased bone density (I have osteopenia, on the cusp of osteoporosis), shortness of breath, medication reactions, malabsorption, and tinnitus. See a list of signs and symptoms here.

It would be wonderful to be able to manage and control any of these issues, but none of them scares me like the nights I’ve had recently, not even full-blown anaphylaxis. I’ve tried so hard to figure out my triggers, but they are moving targets. Tongue swelling and angioedema are obvious, as is the very specific breathing difficulty you get with anaphylaxis (it is nothing like asthma or wheezing from an infection). I don’t get daily hives and itching like many people. My reactions now are all about the histamine bucket and completely dependent on where I am in my cycle and what is happening in my life. I may be able to eat anything one week and then suspect that those same foods are giving me sinus trouble, insomnia and a jaw ache a different week. My chronic daily headaches, tinnitus, brain fog and exhaustion could be from food choices, but I’ve never been able to pin down any causation. My diet is very low-histamine compared to normal people and how it used to be, but I still allow myself chocolate, coconut, store-bought chips, beef, almost all fruit, including dried and many things that others avoid. Could these things be contributing to my problems? Yes, but, without a definite correlation, I don’t want to eliminate foods. Once you’ve experienced anaphylaxis, “reactions” like a runny nose, constipation or aching hands are quite ignorable. The only thing that consistently caused a reaction was alcohol and my periods. And, now I can say with certainty, holidays and events, no matter how careful I am.

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I prepared for Christmas over the course of a month and a half, slowly bought presents and wrapped them, slowly wrote some Christmas cards, slowly got the spare room ready for my sister, slowly did laundry — over the course of weeks! Didn’t overexert myself at all. There was no excitement, no activities. My sister and her small dog came over, we watched tv and opened presents. I had rested multiple times throughout the day and the only not normal thing I ate was half a tiny piece of fresh King salmon, which had been brought in off the docks that same morning and, I was told, caught the day before.

My tongue started to swell up after dinner. By the late evening, I had gotten upset for really no good reason (which has historically happened with my mast cell reactions) and was flushing. I had a bad reaction to about 15mg of Benadryl a week or two prior, so I was scared to take a decent dose on this night. I bit a dye-free capsule and put a drop on my swollen tongue and went to bed. At 2am, I awoke with the same evil that I experienced on Thanksgiving and the night after starting Cromolyn (before going to the AirBnb rentals back in September — it was a few days before my period that time, too). I was shaking so badly, I couldn’t lift the water glass, I was drenched in sweat and had weird runaway chills coursing through my body. I crawled on my hands and knees to the bathroom, which scared the shit out of me because, through all the worst of ME, that’s only happened once before. I fell into harrowing nightmares and woke up gasping for breath over and over, feeling poisoned and infected. I dreamt that I was sick and dying and my husband wasn’t paying attention or taking it seriously. I dreamt that I was sick and dying and my mother laughed at me (this isn’t remotely based in truth, this is my terrified mind not knowing how or where to get help). I dreamt that my dog’s neck was broken and I was carrying him to get help, but I was sick and dying and couldn’t do it. And, finally, I dreamt that I was lying on the floor begging my husband over and over: “Please kill me. Please kill me. Please kill me.” I woke up sobbing and so wrung out.

That morning, my period came 5 days early. You better believe, if I had known my period was going to arrive Christmas Day, I might have cancelled Christmas. Or at least postponed present opening for a day. And definitely not eaten even the freshest salmon.

In the past, my anaphylaxis episodes went like this:
My friend A’s birthday party.
My friend C’s birthday party.
Oktoberfest.
Easter party.
C used to joke that I was allergic to fun. I can’t believe he was right. I collapsed and had the paramedics called twice while my mother was staying with us and, also, when my best friend was here from Ireland — both were “events”. I started to get paranoid that, psychologically, I was somehow causing my system to crash when there were visitors. But, every single one of these times, I had my period. There were only a few anaphylactic episodes that I can remember when it wasn’t the first day of my menstrual cycle. EVENT + MENSTRUATION = MAST CELL MELTDOWN. But I think I only really and truly started to believe this 100% on Christmas.

So, Christmas day is a total haze. I crawled downstairs a few times to eat and try to put on a good face, but I don’t remember much and dozed most of the day. Like Thanksgiving and September, however, I bounced back quicker than I could have ever anticipated. That night I kept marveling, “How am I speaking? How am I sitting up? How am I alive?” When it’s bad, you honestly want to die. When it ebbs, the human spirit kicks back in shockingly quickly and you just get on with it, until the next time when you are surprised anew at just how bad the bad is. I didn’t even really modify my diet. I continued to eat my almond butter, coconut ice cream and drink bone broth and tea (all high-ish histamine). If anything, I felt more, Oh fuck it, how much worse could it be? At this stage, I’m much more scared of menstruation and engaging in any sort of event — even one in my house, in my pajamas, with only a single guest.

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I am currently putting together an informational kit (in a bag that was donated to me by a member of one of my groups), so my husband has something to grab in the event of an emergency. My dilemma is that I’ve managed to avoid drugs all this time (never had to use my EpiPen), so I have no way to premedicate for things like plane flights, dental work or necessary procedures like a CT scan or colonoscopy (which my doctor has wanted me to get for years, but I refuse because I’m worried about reactions). I have no safe protocol. 13 years ago, I got IV diphenhydromine for anaphylaxis, now I react to 15mg of Benadryl! 5 years ago, I had IV morphine for dysmennorhea, now my breathing shuts down with a crumb of hydrocodone or codeine. What would happen in a real emergency? If I need surgery? Knock on wood, toba toba, ptooey, ptooey. Once I have everything compiled, I will post it here.

Having said all that, I’m really in quite a good place, feeling happy and hopeful about the new year. Maybe because I realise that these reactions are mast cell degranulations and not ME relapses and that takes some of the fear away. Somehow dying from anaphylaxis is less scary than becoming permanently bedbound with ME. Perhaps only people with both illnesses will understand that. So, here’s what I did New Year’s Eve:

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As well as resilience, forgiveness, positivity and optimism, I’d also like to request that 2015 doles out truckloads of health, wealth and happiness to all of us. That’s all. That’s not too much to ask, right? 🙂

Throwback Thursday: Autoimmune Thyroid Disease

I have had an itch under my jaw, deep in the tissue of my neck for years. In 2009, I decided to mention it to a doctor one day and, although she didn’t feel anything abnormal in the area of the itch, she did casually say, “You do have a lump on your thyroid, though.” I had a thyroid nuclear test done and a radioactive iodine uptake test which showed two toxic multinodular goiters.”Toxic”, meaning thyroid hormone was being produced at an increased rate, which is why my thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) tested so low. “Multinodular” because it was a late-stage goiter, meaning it had been around for a while and had a chance to grow and become lumpy. In my case, I had been hyperthyroid for at least 7 years ~ my first abnormal TSH result was in 2002, but my doctors never pursued it and I didn’t know enough to insist.

This was my first experience with specialists. I had only ever dealt with general practitioners and emergency room doctors. The research doctors that diagnosed me were bizarre. They came into the room and peered at me like I was a specimen, their faces frozen into pensive seriousness. I started cracking jokes to break the tension, but they didn’t respond in kind. They asked me questions with long quiet pauses in between, during which they would look at each other and mumble and nod: Do you have flushing? Are you intolerant to heat? Do you shake? Stick out your tongue. Hold out your hand. Have you experienced any anxiety symptoms?  I finally stopped them and asked what they had found ~ they had told me nothing! Do I have cancer? No. Do I need surgery? No. Okay, now you can ask me more questions.

I had to do both nuclear medicine tests twice because too much time elapsed from my first round of testing to go forward with treatment ~ radioiodine ablation. After you have radiation treatment, you must stay away from people and animals for a few weeks, use different cutlery, use a different toilet and/or flush twice. It seemed like a big decision, but the doctors told me it was a terminal problem. I’ll never forget that. They said there wasn’t a very long life expectancy for people with untreated hyperthyroidism. Huh? Seriously? I didn’t seem to have a choice. So, I did it. I killed the whole thyroid and started taking hormones every day for the rest of my life. I never missed a day of work through this experience. During the segregation weeks, I holed up in the restaurant office, alone. I remember encountering a pregnant lady on my way to the rarely-used toilet in the basement and leaping back out of her space as if I’d been electrocuted… high-tailing back into the office so she wouldn’t be exposed to radiation. What must she have thought? 😉

Interestingly, I never felt like the symptoms abated. The flushing and hot flashes (my most visible symptoms, which I chalked up to oddly increasing self-consciousness) and the anxiety (which I blamed on my job) ebbed a little, but not much. And, of course, this was undoubtedly part of the priming of my body for ME. Hyperthyroidism and my anaphylactic episodes started about the same time. It was the beginning of the end.

Below are the photos and email that I sent to friends and family back then, hoping that it might open someone’s eyes to thyroid problems or make them listen a little bit more to their bodies. The fact that I thought I was having “devastating” and “debilitating” symptoms then strikes me as funny now… and sad. What was happening to my body because of my thyroid problems was NOTHING compared to what is happening to my body with M.E. They’re not even on the same planet … in the same universe. Can’t I go back to my old serious  health problems?

I have attached 3 pictures that I took before I got radiation treatment (ablation). The first is looking at my neck as I stand relaxed, the next is with my head back and the third was taken as I swallowed. I can’t believe I never noticed the lump on my thyroid. I can’t believe nobody else did. I can’t believe, with 7+ years of abnormal TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone) levels, neither a doctor nor I, myself, looked any closer at my neck or my symptoms.  [The radioiodine must have swelled my thyroid, however there was definitely a visible lump before treatment that I never noticed until it was pointed out -and it is unforgivable that no doctor ever took the time to look further into my bloodwork or palpate my throat.]

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Head straight on.

So, I guess I’m hoping this email influences everyone to pay closer attention to their bodies. Look closer: know every line and lump so you’ll recognise changes. Listen closer: if your body is constantly telling you it’s way too hot or way too cold or way too tired or way too hungry, don’t ignore it. Don’t wait for a doctor to find out what’s wrong with you ~ question everything that feels wrong.

It turns out I wasn’t overheated & flushing because I’d become suddenly self-conscious. It turns out I didn’t just “get lucky” with an amazing metabolism. I wasn’t having floods of anxiety that caused my heart to race & skip beats because my job was stressful. I wasn’t debilitatingly exhausted because I worked too much & didn’t sleep enough. Well, at least not entirely.

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Head tilted back.

It’s still going to be a long road ~ my doctors say we could be tweaking my medication for years. I still vacillate between feeling ok and feeling dizzy and wasted… I eat about half what I used to… I’ll have to take hormones forever…. But, it’s not out of the question to go to a movie after a day’s work and I don’t spend my weekends crumpled in a ball, sobbing, asking what’s wrong with me while my husband wonders what to say….

I’m angry that I spent so long feeling that way and just explaining it away. I hope this inspires everyone to take a minute to think about your body and your quality of life. It’s all too short! Take care of yourselves!

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Swallowing.