Thursday, September 22, 2016
When I have allowed myself to stray down this tangled trail, a nasty battle always breaks out between my Buddhist and existential leanings, my inner Siddhartha calmly stating that there is no such thing as coincidence while my inner Jean-Paul Sartre screams back that life is nothing but an exercise in randomness. Nothing like a philosophical brouhaha roiling around inside the noggin to ruin what might have otherwise been a decent day. In the end, these thought kerfuffles inevitably lead me to counter the “why me?” conundrum with its other half, “why not me?”. This seems to temporarily satisfy both Siddhartha and Sartre, forcing them each to retreat back to their own little corners of my mind, where the Buddha sits in quiet meditation and Sartre drinks and smokes his brains out.
I have of late been giving more thought to the “how’s” of my illness, as in “how the frack did I get so sick!?!?”. Whereas the “why” question deals more with the metaphysics of the situation, the “how” is focused more on the nuts and bolts of the disease mechanism and the circumstances that led to my getting ground-up in its gears. At first glance the “how” might seem as insoluble a question as the “why”, but by sizing up what we know about the disease and matching it with the circumstances of my own life I think I’ve come up with a reasonably plausible explanation for how I got from point A to point B (and the B stands for “Blechh”).
It’s long been suspected that Multiple Sclerosis and other so-called autoimmune diseases have strong genetic components. As scientists have begun to unravel the human genome, more and more genes have been discovered that seem to play a role in the Multiple Sclerosis disease process (click here and here). While many patients might not be able to isolate their own genetic susceptibility without a complete mapping of their DNA, in my case the genetic connection is actually quite clear.
My mom developed gestational diabetes when she was pregnant with me, and unlike the vast majority of such cases, her illness did not resolve after I was born. Stranger still, her malady turned out to be type I diabetes, otherwise known as juvenile diabetes, by far the most serious form of the disease. Type I diabetes is thought to be caused by an autoimmune attack on the pancreas, leaving it unable to produce insulin. A shake of my mom’s family tree revealed that her grandfather and uncle also had type I diabetes, indicating that there is certainly a genetic trait for the disease being passed down from generation to generation. Research has shown that the children of diabetics have a 50% greater chance than the general population of developing some sort of autoimmune disease, and here I am with not only MS but also Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, an autoimmune disease that destroys the thyroid gland. It is also suspected that I’ve had an autoimmune attack on my pituitary gland, and for a while the doctors thought I had discoid lupus, an autoimmune disease that attacks the skin.
Of course, simply having the genetic predisposition to develop a disease doesn’t on its own guarantee that a person will get sick. Given my family history, it’s likely that many of my relatives share these same funky genes, and none of them, to my knowledge, have developed diabetes, Multiple Sclerosis, or any of the other usual suspects (lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease, etc.). Somewhere along the line something needs to trigger the genetic susceptibility for disease to take hold, in effect turning the “sick genes” on. In the case of MS, scientists have long focused on the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), a member of the herpes virus family, as a likely disease trigger.
Epstein-Barr virus is the nasty bug responsible for mononucleosis, although most people infected with EBV never do develop Mono. Instead, the initial infection can manifest as a severe cold or flu, and a person can often be infected without having any symptoms at all. Once infected with EBV, the virus stays within a patient’s body for the rest of their lives. Infection with Epstein-Barr virus is so common that it’s estimated about 90% of the adult population harbors the virus. Astoundingly, though, it’s been found that 100% of MS patients are infected with EBV. That’s right, 100%. The correlation is so high that some researchers have stated that “people who are not infected with Epstein-Barr virus do not get MS” (click here).
Sure enough, blood tests have revealed that I am indeed infected with EBV. Of course, since the vast majority of adults are also infected with Epstein-Barr virus, the virus alone can’t be the cause of Multiple Sclerosis. In conjunction with a genetic susceptibility, though, the virus may be the thing that tips the scales between health and illness.
It’s interesting to note that in its dormant state, Epstein-Barr virus takes up residence within the immune system’s B cells. Just so happens that some of the MS disease modifying drugs destroy a patient’s B cells, thereby ridding the body of much of its EBV load as well. The interferon drugs (Rebif, Avonex, Betaseron, Plegridy) also happen to be very strong antivirals. Could it be that these drugs work, at least in part, not because of their immunosuppressive or immunomodulating properties, as is commonly believed, but because they are attacking EBV in the bodies of MS patients? Not a mainstream idea to be sure, but something I think worth considering.
Epstein-Barr virus isn’t the only infectious agent that has been linked to MS. The bacteria responsible for many sinus infections have been implicated in the disease as well (click here and here). I’ve suffered from sinus infections most of my life and had endoscopic sinus surgery in 2006 to try to eradicate the problem. Unfortunately, the surgery only helped temporarily, as my sinus problems reemerged soon afterwards. So I’m two for two when it comes to possible infectious triggers for Multiple Sclerosis.
Actually, make that three for three. Exposure to toxic molds and funguses have also been linked to neurologic and demyelinating diseases (click here), and back in the 1990s, when I was living in South Florida, I spent two years working in a building that was found to be riddled with toxic molds and bacteria. At the time I was employed by a startup company, and after a few months working in their very crowded offices the company moved into a larger building that had been empty for quite some time. The facility was in pretty bad shape, with wires dangling out of the decrepit ceiling panels and a musty smell hanging in the air. Simply walking into the place felt unhealthy.
After spending about a year and a half working within those walls it was revealed that upper management had been sitting on an environmental report which stated that the building was riddled with a smorgasbord of toxic microorganisms. The sons of bitches in the executive offices had kept the report hidden until one of their administrative assistants copied it and left it on the desks of several employees. Soon after, men in hazmat suits came and sectioned off parts of the building as they decontaminated the place section by section. In retrospect, my first weird symptoms started cropping up while I worked in that building, and last year when I was tested for exposure to toxic molds the results came back positive. Wonderful.
Stress is another factor that has been linked to MS and similar diseases. Many MS patients report their first symptoms after periods of acute stress, and it’s been demonstrated that stress can bring on relapses in those patients suffering from Relapsing Remitting Multiple Sclerosis (click here). Though I’d always been neurotic and prone to worry, my years in South Florida were especially filled with stress, both of the acute type brought on by upsetting life events, and long-term simmering stress engendered by living in a place where I always felt like a stranger in a strange land.
My periods of acute stress were almost always initiated by the breakup of romantic relationships, which I inevitably took much harder than was even remotely reasonable. Losing a long-term girlfriend more often than not sent me into a period of prolonged psychological agony, during which I’d lose weight, sleep, and sense of self for months and months at a time. Yes, I know it’s hard to believe that any woman would leave a fella as oozing with charm as me, but lo and behold, there were a few who unceremoniously gave me the gate. And when they did, I imploded. Seems I had an incredible knack for zeroing in on precisely the women who would be most toxic to me and then fall for them, hard. I believe the accepted psychological term for a person who habitually engages in such behavior is “jackass”.
Soon after one breakup in 1997 I suffered from incredibly severe headaches for about three weeks, super intense searing headaches that emanated from the base of my skull and left me damn near completely debilitated. Now my MRI images reveal my one big juicy MS lesion at the very top of my spine right beneath my brainstem, precisely at the spot from which those headaches seemed to radiate. Could it be that those headaches of old were somehow involved in the formation of the lesion that is at the root of my current neurological mess?
The latter five or six years of my stay in South Florida found me enmeshed in a kind of simmering, low-level stress brought on by trying to be someone I wasn’t. I spent that time working in extremely corporate environments, shirt and tie type places that I found to be soul stifling. Though I had creative jobs within those organizations, the stress of trying to conform with corporate culture took its toll. I had once sworn I would never join the 9-to-5 workaday world, but there I was, sending myself off to prison each and every day.
Though I made several very close friends in Florida and was never wanting for a social life, I always felt somewhat alien there, my aesthetics and values simply at odds with the place and most of its inhabitants. Still, for reasons I can’t fully explain, I remained living in a place I couldn’t stand while working at jobs I hated until one final romantic breakup mercifully sent me packing back to New York, where I rediscovered the me that I’d almost forgotten existed. And then, just a few years later, the beast that had been showing glimpses of itself for years finally reared its ugly head, and I was diagnosed with MS.
There then is the “how” of my disease, as best as I can figure. Genetic predisposition? Check. Exposure to infectious triggers? Check. Periods of stress, both acute and long-term? Check. Now, if only there was some way to uncheck some of those boxes. Researchers are just starting to try to figure out how to address the genetic aspects of disease, and many biotech startups are attempting to develop gene therapies for a variety of illnesses. Scientists are working on vaccines for Epstein-Barr virus, but the work still seems to be in its early stages (click here). And though life will never be free of stress, individuals can learn techniques such as mindfulness and meditation that can help them make better life choices and reduce the impact of stress on their existence.
I wish I could say that figuring out how I got sick brings with it some sort of gratification. I suppose that on a purely intellectual level fitting the puzzle pieces together into a somewhat coherent picture is a teensy weensy bit satisfying. Then again, all of my conjecture may be completely wrong, my illness due more to the evil eye put on me by a Gypsy beggar I once crossed than to the elements identified by my keen analytical powers. Perhaps it was my destiny to wind up the Wheelchair Kamikaze, and no matter what choices I made, all roads would’ve converged at point B (as in B, for “Barf”). Okay, I’d better stop this thought train before Siddhartha and Sartre square off and pelt each other with rocks and garbage in the deepest recesses of my brain pan…