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Fighting back against autoimmune diseases

Autoimmune diseases are what happens when the body fights itself.

The diseases are caused by a bad immune response. In most cases, the body will send out white cells, or fighter cells, to take down infection and they instead fight healthy tissue, causing a bad response in your body. Chronic, debilitating pain typically follows with a bevy of other symptoms.

March is autoimmune disease awareness month, which works to educate the public on the family of illnesses that has become one of the leading causes of death and disability, according to the U.S. Department of Health.

“It might be as much as 5 percent of the population that has some form of autoimmune disease,” said Dr. Andras Perl, chief of rheumatology at Upstate Medical University. Yet the general society acknowledgement of autoimmune diseases, such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and Sjogren’s Syndrome, is little to none.

In January, I woke to find that day-after-day, my energy was depleted and my body felt as if it were broken. Getting out of bed was a task, and working was difficult. My hands would cramp up during interviews and my brain was a fog. I was beginning to feel that at 23, I had suddenly aged 50 years. Some tests were done and I was determined to have an autoimmune disease, but my rheumatologist is still working to figure out which one — there’s about a hundred and a proper diagnosis could take years.

I, like many others, had no idea of the reach of autoimmune diseases, or the impact behind them prior to my diagnosis. Autoimmune diseases are common, but society’s not talking.

Perl says celebrities with an autoimmune disease tend to push the issue into the spotlight. Media circulate when celebrities talk about their health.

“Usually what happens, if there is a celebrity with autoimmune disease, these people have the power to raise awareness because people pay a lot of attention, then the public knows about it,” he said.

Most recently, entertainment personality Nick Cannon made the news when he revealed he had a form of lupus that affects the kidneys. Michael Jackson had lupus. Lady Gaga said in 2010 she had “borderline” lupus, a disease that can affect any number of organs and cause widespread inflammation.

Last year, Sjogren’s (pronounced show-grins) Syndrome knocked Venus Williams out of the U.S. Open. The New York Times took an in-depth look at the disease, and the people living with it. Montel Williams has been very vocal about his battle with Multiple Sclerosis. Lucille Ball battled rheumatoid arthritis. Kim Kardashian found out she had psoriasis while filming “Keeping up with the Kardashians.” Shannon Doherty has Crohn’s Disease. Keith Olbermann, Zooey Deschanel and Chelsea Clinton are all diagnosed with Celiac’s Disease. The list goes on and on.

But what stops is the recognition. The awareness. The fight to fix a leading cause of death, disability and debilitating body response.

Take action locally — on Sunday, March 25, the annual Walk-Along for Lupus will be held at 8:30 a.m. at Carousel Center.

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