In the summer of 2010, 27-year-old Valdosta native Sierra Fillmore fell ill. The cause of the illness was unknown at the time, but it was severe enough for her to be taken to South Georgia Medical Center.
“My mom took me to the emergency room,” Sierra recalled. “They ended up admitting me. I was hospitalized for three weeks.”
Still uncertain of the cause of the visit, doctors conducted tests in order to find answers. After completing a gauntlet of tests, Sierra was given the news that would alter her life as she knew it.
“I was told that I had lupus,” she said. “My first reaction was a fear of cancer, but the doctor explained to me that lupus is, in actuality, an autoimmune disease that attacks the body.”
Systemic lupus erythematosus, often shortened to simply lupus, is a systemic autoimmune disease in which the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissue. It commonly affects the heart, liver, kidneys, joints, skin, and nervous system.
Her fear was not without reason; cancer is already an unwelcome guest within her family. Her mother, Patricia Johnson, was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in 2006. Sadly, after an eight-year battle in which the disease spread to her brain, lungs, kidneys, and liver, her mother passed away in January 2015.
“My mom was such a sweet and caring person,” Sierra said. “She loved working with children, and she would always make it a point to just enjoy life, no matter how rough her days were. That was my biggest encouragement; my mom would always tell me to stay positive. Regardless of everything that she was going through, she always ensured that I stayed in good spirits with my own illness.”
While cancer is an illness that has become somewhat common in Sierra’s family, so too has lupus. She says that three of her aunts are also fighting lupus, one of which shares the same treatment regimen. While there is no cure, lupus is commonly treated with immunosuppressants, such as corticosteroids, to help keep symptoms under control. Statistics show that the illness occurs in women nine times more often than males.
“Probably the most common symptoms that I have to deal with are joint pain in my legs, hips, and fingers,” Sierra explained. “People with lupus also become very sensitive to being out in direct sunlight. But I would say that my worst symptom is fatigue; I can be in the middle of doing something and feel perfectly fine, and next thing I know, I just feel drained and have to stop whatever I’m doing and sit down.”
And while symptoms obviously vary from patient to patient, they also vary in extremity. Another effect of lupus is the prevalence of strokes, mainly due to stress, as well as blood vessel inflammation and the potential triggering of blood clots. In 2015, Sierra suffered two strokes as a result of her illness.
“Stress plays a big part in all of it,” she explained. “At first, fatigue was my biggest limit, but since the strokes, I have been left with right-sided paralysis. I’m much more limited in what I can do, and there are certain things that I now need help with.”
Although it is difficult at times, her doctors recommend that she try to remain as active as possible. She says that there are no particular exercises that are prescribed; she is just told to remain active, as it will help with inflammation and joint pain.
“Everyone is different,” she said. “Treatment varies from person to person. For some, even surgery is needed; it just depends on the individual. Personally, I take an anti-rejection medicine called azathioprine, which is used to suppress the work of the immune system, or essentially lessen the amount of attack coming from it.”
The illness also makes its presence felt in the effect of an altered diet. According to livestrong.com, a diet rich in vegetables and fruits, as well as whole grains, proteins, and fats is important for managing lupus symptoms and supporting healthy responses.
“It definitely affects what I can and cannot eat,” Sierra said. “There are certain things that you can’t eat because it may cause a flare-up. But again, everyone is different.”
While every day is difficult, Sierra still looks forward to the opportunity of a new morning. Having such a strong support system in her mother, she is able to face whatever challenges come her way, and she encourages others to keep the same mindset.
“The most important thing that I can tell anyone that is fighting lupus is to stay encouraged,” she said. “Whether your battle is days, months, or years old, understand that it is not the end to living your life. It may make things tougher, but it doesn’t mean you should give up on anything. My mom always said I should make the best of every day, and I think that everyone else should do the same.”
May is recognized as Lupus Awareness Month, and World Lupus Day is acknowledged on May 10. Everyone is encouraged to wear purple in support of those battling the illness, and everyone is also encouraged to challenge themselves to learn more about its effects and what those with lupus encounter on a daily basis.
According to the Lupus Foundation of America, which credits the illness as “one of the world’s cruelest, most unpredictable, and devastating diseases,” approximately two-thirds of the public knows little or nothing about lupus.
The term lupus is Latin for “wolf”. In the 18th century, when lupus was just starting to be recognized as a disease, it was thought that it was caused by a wolf’s bite. This may have been because of the distinctive malar rash characteristic of lupus. Once full-blown, the round, disk-shaped rashes heal from the inside out, leaving an imprint that looks like a bite mark.
Health-Life / May 2016
By James A. Washington