The Auto-Immune Irony

illness

The symptoms were subtle when I was first diagnosed, but after a few years into my battle with MS, the progression became steadier, and I began to use a cane whenever I left the house. The interferons I was injecting myself with weren’t doing a damn thing, and I had become dissatisfied with my neurologist because he appeared unsure about how to proceed. In fact, he once called another neurologist to confirm a thought he had while I was in the office with him. This didn’t inspire a lot of confidence, so I decided to make a change .

I work for a large health system, and when I asked my boss if he knew anyone in the MS field I should consider, he deferred to the organization’s Medical Chief of Staff for a recommendation, and was given the name of a neurologist close to where I work, who was reputed to be one of the best clinicians in the state. I made the switch, and later learned that he was the guy my former neurologist had called that day.

During our first appointment, he declared I should change medications, which made me happy. I had come to hate injecting myself, particularly when I didn’t notice any improvement whatsoever on the progression front. In hindsight, I don’t know why I agreed to take them in the first place, because I knew they were designed more for the relapsing remitting (RRMS) kind, than the progressive kind I had. Tysabri wasn’t an option because the blood test he ordered when I scheduled the visit indicated I had the JC Virus. After listing the options available to me, he recommended I start monthly infusions of steroids and a chemo drug called cytoxan.  Shocked might be too strong a word to describe my initial reaction, but I was definitely surprised and confused. I mean, how in the world would a cancer drug help me. It seems silly now, but all I thought about at the time was getting sick and having my hair fall out, and asked him if I would have to deal with that.

He assured me the dose I would be getting wouldn’t cause those side effects, and I would be given an anti-nausea med just in case. When I asked why he believed this was the appropriate way to go, he explained that MS was an auto-immune disease and described what that meant. To paraphrase,  my immune system had run amok, and my body was cannibalizing itself in terms of the demyelination  that had occurred. The chemo would suppress the immune system so it would stop attacking my body, thus putting brakes on the progression. This explanation made sense, so I consented to the monthly routine.

This decision was made with a lot of trepidation that I didn’t share, because I didn’t want to sound like a wimp (I don’t have that issue anymore). Part of the anxiety evolved from the fact that I would be getting monthly blood tests to check my liver enzymes, because the chemo had the potential to fuck up my liver, which thrilled me. There were other things they would be checking to make sure the chemo wasn’t doing more harm than good, but that was the one that I latched onto.

My other fear was I would become susceptible to every germ known to mankind, because I would be shutting my immune system down. Consequently, I assumed I would be sick all the time, catching colds and any flu bug or any virus that was floating around. I thought the winters would become an especially miserable, unending chain of one illness after another. After all, wasn’t this a logical assumption, given that my front line of health defense was going to be taking a siesta? I was afraid that the devil I didn’t know would become worse than the one I did, but hoped that the reality would be different, and that the treatment would turn out to be the lesser of the two evils.

That was seven or eight years ago, and I look back at that time with amusement. Why? Because the weirdest and most ironic thing that has occurred since I’ve been getting these infusions, is that I’ve been remarkably healthy. Unusually healthy, in fact. Just mentioning it makes me wonder if I am jinxing myself for the upcoming cold and flu season, but I can’t deny the truth.

When I first started the treatments, I may have encountered the occasional cold, sinus infection or flu. I can’t say for sure because I don’t remember those kinds of details from that long ago, but if they did occur, they were far and few in between. What I can say with absolute confidence, is the last cold I had was two or three years ago, and it was short-lived. I don’t remember the last time I was sick with the flu, had a stomach virus, or anything like that. Last year, everyone in my household had something, and had it on more than one occasion.  I also work in a large office, where everybody was sick at one time or another. Not me. I was the oasis of health in a sea of sickness at home and at work. I’m sure germs were floating all around me on a daily basis, yet I remained unscathed. It’s bizarre.

Is this pure coincidence? I think not. I believe that even though I’m trying to put my immune system to sleep, it remains overactive enough to shield me from the maladies that latch onto everyone else, yet not so active that the progression accelerates. I guess my neurologist knew what he was talking about.

This winter is going to test this theory, because I have switched to a new chemo agent that I will take every six months, instead of one Friday every month. You see, even though I didn’t get sick, I felt like I had the flu every Sunday that followed the Friday infusion, a parting gift from the chemo. This new drug will be administered twice a year and actually kills certain cells (T cells?).  I assume this means the drug is stronger, takes longer to get out of my system, which in turn means it takes longer for the cells that it kills to be replenished enough to give them another whack. My next scheduled infusion isn’t until March, so it will be interesting to see if I will enjoy another illness-free winter. Should that occur, how can I not conclude that my over-active immune system is like Pac-Man, gobbling up every germ seeking shelter before it can settle in my sinus or gut?

A definite plus, but I’d rather have two good legs.

 

Author: Steve Markesich

I am loving husband, a doting father, a Red Sox fanatic, an aspiring novelist and MS advocate

7 thoughts on “The Auto-Immune Irony”

    1. I have no idea what kicked mine into overdrive. I have my suspicions, but that’s all they are. I’m just glad that my symptoms appeared later in life (late 40’s). I really feel for those who have to deal with this this shit in their teens and twenties.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. It is amazing what they find that works, even when we don’t know the reason why. My sister had her first infusion of Rituxan yesterday. There have been some promising studies that have shown that this chemo drug is beneficial to the severe form of Myasthenia Gravis that she deals with. Hope you both have amazing results from your drug therapies.

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    1. My neurologist wanted to give me Rituxan to replace the chemo months ago when the progression started to pick up, but my insurance did not approve it. Recently, the FDA approved something called Ocrevus for my strain of MS, which is almost a clone of Rituxan. This is the new med I’m on and will be getting every six months. I would be curious to know how your sister reacts to the RItuxan

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