I’ve recently realized something profound.
When I was diagnosed in 1972 – a month after my first birthday, the data showed that most patients wouldn’t reach their teen years.
Amazingly, though, as of 2014, of all CF patients currently living, 50.7% are older than 18. That’s incredible news. However, the median age at death in that same year was only 29.1 years.
I am 44 years old. In the general population, most people would consider that middle-aged. But in the CF population, I’m an anomaly.
The fact is, only 5 percent of Cystic Fibrosis patients are older than 40.*
*According to info published in the most recent Cystic Fibrosis Patient Registry, information collected from 28,676 patients seen at accredited CF care centers. Most, but not all, CF patients attend such centers.
I have so many questions, but I know that I will not find any real answers.
So I will share the three things that I DO know.
1. I am beating the odds.
- Whether you believe in luck, fate, chance, karma, punishment, or a higher being’s plan for you…
- Whether you believe that those who live longer are more compliant with their medications and treatments than those who don’t live as long (note that I do NOT subscribe to this theory)…
- Whether it’s due to my environment and lifestyle, such as the way or what I eat, how I manage certain issues, my BMI, the type or amount of exercise I do, my airway clearance regimen, how much sleep I get each night, or some concoction of supplements that help me recovery from flare-ups or that slow overall progression…
- Whether it’s because, in addition to my mutated genes that cause CF, I have some crazy fabulous genes that compete with the bad ones, and many times win the battle….heck, my two grandmothers did not pass until they were in their 90s, so I have some good genes in me.
2. CF is taking its cumulative toll on my body
As I age, my body is battling the effects of decades of malfunctioning, infections and organ disease, and toxic medications to help me to the most basic things such as breathing and eating.
My lungs, digestive system, and other organs – in fact, every cell in my body – have been fighting the imbalance of salt channels and the thick mucus that causes disease in our bodies for more than 4 decades. As my organs deal with the dysfunction and disease, they become inflamed with every exacerbation. The frequency of exacerbations and the shorter recovery times between them mean that my body is often in a state of constant inflammation. And unfortunately, the number one medication that treats inflammation is also really, really bad for people with CF. It weakens our immune system and also negatively affects those of us with CF related Diabetes.
3. Having CF doesn’t preclude me from what’s considered normal symptoms of aging. Name a body part and it changes with age. CF doesn’t stop those things from happening.
My body has been fighting – since before I was born – to perform normally. Now, in what is considered middle age for healthy people, I’m starting to experience regular “growing old” stuff. The kind of stuff that make you think, “I’m not as young as I used to be”. The things that slaps you into coherence that you’re really NOT 23 anymore. Or even 33.
At least I can laugh and commiserate with my sisters when we notice one another’s white hair spreading across our foreheads, or deal with puffy eyes or a quicker-to-twinge back muscle.
Back to the white hair thing – I recently came across an online group for people with CF who have gray hair. As much as I have been fighting this sign of aging, others have reminded me that our predecessors didn’t get the chance to have their first gray or white hair!! What a privilege is it to actually have reached a point in life that indicates you’ve survived into adulthood! While I still haven’t given up the color battle, I do feel like it’s my own little secret, my own little victory that I get to wear every day (there’s always a new stray white hair popping out, somewhere on my head!).
Next-to-last final thought
All of this also reminds me that I need to give myself a break sometimes. I have high expectations of what I should be able to do and so many things that I want to do. And the reality is, that my body has been fighting for so long just to be alive, that sometimes I think I expect too much from it.
If, on any given day, my biggest accomplishment is taking a shower, I need to be OK with that. I always talk about celebrating the small victories, and I think it’s important to view all aspects of my life that way. I am proud of what I have accomplished – not just physically, or professionally, but spiritually, mentally, in the way that I view and live my life.
But the real point I am making…
I am 44 years old, I have CF, and I am still here.
And I feel damn lucky.