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February 22, 2010

It's time to make health a high priority

By Jennifer Zartman Romano

I typically have a lot on my mind -- and most of it doesn't come out in the form of an article or a column. Sometimes it's helpful for me when it does.

Because I'm blessed to have people who love and care about me, I finally heeded the advice of others and made an appointment for a full health assessment a little over two weeks ago. When my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 47, she had never had a mammogram and rarely went to the doctor. She was a healthy person and with a busy life, she didn't have time (nor occasionally the insurance) to go to the doctor. At the age of 26, when she died, I said, "That will never be me. I'll make time to go to the doctor." Five years, two kids and a busy life later, I found that a good amount time had passed since I had been to the doctor.

Six months of occasional, very well-intentioned "bugging" from three important people in my life made me aware of the need to go, but finding an unidentified lump three weeks ago -- I made the appointment. I realized going to my doctor (who was also my mom's doctor) was kind of an emotional thing. When I got there that day, they asked me if I wanted to change my emergency contact and then proceeded to read off my mom's name. My eyes welled with tears as I shook my head, "Yes." Sitting in the waiting room thinking about her situation and the unknown lump, it was kind of a lot to absorb.

After a few initial tests, the lump was determined to be a non-issue and, fortunately, non-cancerous. A few more tests revealed that despite my weight, I have excellent health. There are people who would give their right arm for my cholesterol levels. I also have normal blood pressure and I don't have diabetes. There was one thing I never saw coming, though, and it explains everything.

Of the full battery of tests completed, there was one I didn't even know about. It is called a TSH and it measures the level of thyroid hormone in your blood system. Ironically, I learned the name of the test the same day my test was ordered during the course of writing an article, but I didn't know it was being conducted on me! Before I left the office that day, the nurse said no news was good news regarding all of my health screenings and I really didn't expect a call.

But a call did come. I sweated bullets for 48 hours until last Monday morning when I could call the office back. I thought of every horrible thing possible: cancer, diabetes, cancer, cancer, heart disease...did I mention cancer?

It turns out, that TSH test determined that I have hypothyroidism. An hour of googling later, I determined that it explains a whole lot about my situation. For reasons that are still not entirely clear, my thyroid (a gland located in the front of my neck) is failing me. Because it does not work properly, my body is chemically a mess. This condition is responsible for weight gain due to a lifeless metabolism, fatigue, body aches, paleness, dry skin, lackluster hair, swelling of the face and limbs and an assortment of other maladies...all of which I've been experiencing for awhile now. I just assumed it was part of life. I'm not a complainer and I just dealt with it not realizing there was an underlying reason for any of it.

I like to think I operate at about 110% -- full throttle -- all the time. This may be the case, but now that I know what's wrong, I can't help but think I could be operating a lot better. The upside of hypothyroidism is that a lot will improve for me health-wise in the coming weeks. I can look forward to feeling healthier, having more energy and probably an improvement in each of the areas above that are typically impacted by hypothyroidism. The only downside that I see is that I will have to take medication for it for the rest of my life. I will have to make it habit because now that I realize I don't have to feel like I do right now, I don't want to feel like I do right now.

Also, with the advice of Dr. Jeffrey Gladd, I am now embarking on another journey of health improvement – a gluten-free diet. There appears to be a link between hypothyroidism and gluten (wheat allergies). Seemingly the gluten, in a person with allergic response to wheat and wheat-related products, results in an autoimmune response which begins attacking the thyroid tissue. I’ve read about some studies that discovered that people who were able to adhere to a gluten-free diet were able to eventually come off their thyroid medicine when the immune system improved. I’m not expecting that, but I’m hoping I might be able to improve my health a lot with a diet that includes fruits, vegetables, meats, no gluten and as few processed foods as possible. These dietary changes are being embraced by everyone in our household as a means of supporting my efforts to improve my health, but to help them out as well. This is all very positive change.

I'm sharing this with you because I want to encourage each of you to make the time for regular checkups. Our families need us and while, as moms, we say we don't do things because we want to be there for our families -- there's a very real chance that if you don't make time for regular medical check ups, you may not be there very long for your family.


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