“I have Rheumatoid arthritis”

March 25, 2010

It hasn’t been easy for 21-year-old Renee Lang to come to terms
with having a disease for which there is no cure. She worries
that she might have to give up hairdressing a career she loves. Here is her story.

“RA is so unpredictable. I have no idea what the future holds,” she says.
“I thought only old people got RA. When the doctor told me this was what I had, I couldn’t stop crying. I cried all the way to work.”
Renee Lang was 18 and had just completed her
schooling when she applied for university in her
hometown of Adelaide.

“Waiting to hear if I’d been accepted, I took two
summer jobs,” she recalls. “One at a hair salon
where I helped with shampoos and got clients
coffee and tea, the other was at a supermarket as a
checkout girl.”

Even as the lowest employee on the totem pole,
Renee says she immediately loved hairdressing. For
the first time she began to think of it as a possible
long-term career. And although she was at everyone’s
beck and call and constantly on the move, there were
still moments throughout the day when she could
take a break and rest her aching feet.

It was a different story at the supermarket. As
a “checkout chick” there was no let up and after
standing in one spot for her entire eight-hour shift,
Renee would be in such distress because of her feet
that she could barely walk.

She had suffered with feet problems since her
schooldays and regularly saw a podiatrist and a
chiropractor. “When I was 14 and in Year 7, I had a
bad back and used to get lots of headaches. The
chiropractor told me my neck was out of alignment
in some way and the cause of my back pain and
headaches. When I began getting pain in my feet, I
began seeing a podiatrist. Sometimes my feet were
so sore that it would take me a few hours to get going
and while I was working at the supermarket the pain
worsened considerably. My feet became so swollen
that I couldn’t get my shoes on.”

The podiatrist wasn’t able to provide her with any
relief and had no idea what was causing the problem.
“He was hopeless and said there was nothing he could
do for me,” says Renee.

Still she persevered. Deciding hairdressing
was what she really wanted to do, she successfully
applied for a job with a top hairdressing salon.
With their support she enrolled at a highly-regarded
trade school and began her first year as a trainee.
But the pain in her feet continued to bother her and
became more acute. “My fingers were also swelling
up and my left elbow was giving me trouble. My new
podiatrist suggested that I should have a blood test.”
The result showed Renee had an extremely high
rheumatoid factor. Further tests confirmed she had
RA. While no one in her immediate family had ever
been diagnosed with RA, it was discovered that a
great uncle had suffered from the disease.

“I thought that only old people got RA. When the
doctor told me this was what I had, I couldn’t stop
crying. I cried all the way to work.”

With treatment Renee experienced some respite
from the pain in her feet and fingers but she found it
just about impossible to come to terms with the fact
she had a disease for which there is no cure. Equally
difficult to endure, were the monthly blood tests to
monitor the health of her liver and its reactions to the
powerful medications, which can sometimes have
serious side effects, necessary to control her RA.
“Thinking about it, the back pain I suffered was
probably a result of RA,” says Renee, who also
blames the disease for her on-going struggle
with depression which set in during her final
year at school.

Now 21 and in her last year of training, she is in
remission and although the debilitating pain in her
feet, elbow and fingers has largely subsided, she has
an on-going fight with fatigue. “If I’m going out on a
Saturday night I need to take a nap in the afternoon
so I will last the distance. On Saturdays I work at
the salon from 8 a.m. until 2 p.m. and without a rest,
there’s no way I’d be able to keep going until 11 or
later at night,” she says.

But whether she is in or out of remission, Renee’s
friends, colleagues and clients find it difficult to
understand the effects of RA. They find her constant
tiredness and the crippling effects and unrelenting
pain that a flare causes bewildering.

“Because I look ‘normal’ they think nothing could
be wrong with me,” she says. Various boyfriends have
frequently become impatient with her lack of energy
and inability to impulsively take off somewhere at a
short notice or to party into the wee small hours.

Her current boyfriend Cale, an engineering
student, is made of different stuff. To help him
understand RA, Renee gave him a sheaf of Arthritis
Australia fact sheets. “This has opened his eyes,”
she says. “He went to school with a girl who has
RA and he’s keen for me to meet her. I’m looking
forward to this because only others with RA know
what it’s really like.”

Renee is also friends with a fellow hairdressing
trainee who suffers from chronic fatigue syndrome.
“We may not share the same disease but we both
know what it’s like to always be exhausted because of
a chronic condition.”

Since her diagnosis, Renee has attended Pilates
classes once a week and on her physiotherapist’s
advice, has a remedial massage once a month. The
combination of the two has helped loosen up her
joints as well as strengthen and loosen her muscles.
As she is now in remission, Renee’s medications
have also been reduced and for the first time in two
years, she is able to enjoy a glass of wine or a beer
with her friends. This hadn’t been possible since her
diagnosis as several of the many medications she
was on were not compatible with alcohol. “I wanted
to be like every other person my age but because I
“Because I couldn’t drink I was always the
designated driver…that was so boring.”

Although as a hairdresser, Renee is on her
feet most of the day and needs dexterity in her
fingers, she is determined to make hairdressing her
career. “It’s good to have a trade and hairdressing is
something I can do from home if I have to, setting my
own hours and working in my own time. I’d like to be
a hairdresser my whole life but if that’s not possible,
then I’d like to work in aged care.

“My Mum used to do this and I loved going to work
with her because it meant being able to talk to older
people. I love being with them and I really like hearing
about things that happened 30 and 40 years ago.”
Despite her optimism, Renee is also a realist. “I
can’t tell where I might be in 10 years time or if I’ll
end up in a wheelchair. I have no idea what the future
holds. I’m only 21 and while marriage and children
are a long way off, the thought of going off medication
during pregnancy scares me. Even in remission, that
would terrify me. Then there’s caring for the baby.
What would happen if I couldn’t walk or was in the
middle of a flare?”

Even more troubling for Renee is the possibility
that she might pass on the rheumatoid factor to her
children. “This does really worry me,” she admits. But
for now, it is something she refuses to dwell on.
Instead she is enjoying being in remission and
getting 10 hours sleep a night. In fact, she feels so
well that along with Pilates, she has taken up bike
riding and horse riding.”

What is rheumatoid arthritis?
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is the most serious form
of arthritis. It is an autoimmune disease that causes
pain and swelling of the joints. The normal role of the
body’s immune system is to fight off infections.
When a person has an autoimmune disease, the
immune system starts attacking the body’s healthy
tissues. In the case of rheumatoid arthritis, the
immune system targets the lining of the joints, causing
inflammation and joint damage. RA usually affects
smaller joints, such as the joints in the hands and feet.
However larger joints such as the hips and knees can
also be affected.

What are the symptoms?
The symptoms of RA vary from person to person.
The most common symptoms are:
• joint pain, swelling, and tenderness to touch
• stiffness in the joints, especially in the morning
• the same joints on both sides of the body
are affected
• fatigue and depression

Who gets it?
RA affects 2.5 per cent of Australia’s population.
This means that around 520,000 people live with the
disease. It is more common in females who also tend
to develop the RA at an earlier age than males. The
disease onset occurs most often between the ages of
35-64 years. An estimated 57 per cent of people with
RA are women.

What causes it?
It is not known what causes RA. It is more common
in people who smoke and/or those who have a family
history of RA.

How is it diagnosed?
A doctor will diagnose RA based on symptoms,
a physical examination and various tests.
These can include:
• blood tests for inflammation
• blood tests for rheumatoid factor
• x-rays to see if joints are being
damaged by the disease.

For further information, education and support for people with rheumatoid arthritis or any other form or arthritis contact your local State or Territory Arthritis Office. Freecall anywhere in Australia: 1800 011 041
or visit www.arthritisaustralia.com.au.

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