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Years of Life Were Worth the Weight

November 30, 1987|ANNE L. O'CONNELL | Anne L. O'Connell lives in San Diego.

SAN DIEGO — At my birth, I checked in at 7 pounds, 10 ounces, and 21 inches in length. The next 26 years, I pushed that up to 127 pounds and 67 inches.

I thought of myself as naturally thin, a person who could eat anything without gaining weight. I was a plain-looking girl, not beautiful, not ugly. As I entered my 20s, I learned the magic of hair styling, makeup and wardrobe so that, by 25, I had crossed to the attractive side of the equation.

The miniskirt era was made for me. Tall, slender and long legged, I pranced along, parading my lovely legs.

My self-satisfaction was shaken a few years later, when I started graduate school and gained 15 pounds in the first 3 months. I began a diet and lost the added weight by the middle of the second semester. A breeze, no problem.

I got a lot of mileage out of my good looks. As one of the first nurses in the Navy educated as a nurse practitioner, I attracted more than a few glances as I moved around the clinics in my white lab coat, stethoscope in pocket, high heels, blonde streaked hair and slim legs. This was before the recent rise in the number of female physicians, and people were not used to seeing females in health care in anything but starched white uniforms and caps.

My world came apart at age 39 when I found a lump in my neck and learned that I had cancer--malignant lymphoma.

I was devastated by the news. I attacked my invader by studying about the disease and all its horrors, not the least of which was an average life span of seven years.

In due time, I moved through all the appropriate stages to a place of acceptance. I took an early retirement and got on with my life.

Along with my cancer diagnosis came some positive tests for another disease, lupus, a connective tissue illness. Although I considered myself a competent professional, I didn't know much about it except that it had killed the Southern writer Flannery O'Connor. My energy and attention was focused on learning to live with and battle my cancer.

Before long, I needed chemotherapy. I prepared to lose my hair by purchasing a wig ahead of time so I would not have to shop for it bald. I put on a few pounds and teased my doctor, telling him that perhaps the chemotherapy would take off some of the weight. Fat chance!

I knew the steroid Prednisone was part of the chemotherapy, but I didn't know it would turn me into a whirling dervish of hyperactivity and a blabbering magpie and give me the appetite of an orangutan.

I now knew how hyperactive children felt. Every three weeks, I received my treatment, vomited for 12 hours, bounced around the house for five days and gained a couple of pounds that didn't go away. It was no longer easy to lose weight. For every pound I took off, Prednisone put two back on.

Three years after my diagnosis, I began to have a confusing array of symptoms that was slowly but definitely debilitating. This continued for a month before I creaked through my denial system and remembered, Ah! the positive lupus tests.

Sure enough, this sleeping monster now demanded attention. My symptoms were severe enough that I was immediately placed on the drug of choice for this disease, my old friend, Prednisone.

Before long I realized I was facing a problem more disturbing to me than hair loss, which never happened, or vomiting. I was uncontrollably gaining weight. In no time I hit 140.

As my lupus progressed, the Prednisone was increased. Not only did it stimulate my appetite, it also caused intractable insomnia, insomnia that just laughed at sleeping pills. For three years, I did not sleep more than 3 1/2 hours at any one time. I could tell you who was on every nighttime talk show.

My physician suggested that we add Elavil to the recipe. A drug used primarily for depression, it had been found quite effective for sleep and chronic pain. The first night I took it, I slept seven hours. I thought Peter Pan had sprinkled his magic dust on me.

But if Prednisone was a weight lifter, the Elavil was its barbells. Up, up, up went my scale: 150, 160, 165. This tall and lanky size 10 found herself in a different section of the dress departments. I went up from a size 12 to 14 to 18. I don't remember buying a 16. I gained weight so rapidly, I just passed it by.

I started taking an interest in the new fashions for "full-bodied" women and asked myself where Madison Avenue dreams up these names. I felt like wearing a sign that read: "I'm fat, but it's not my fault."

I was in a state of shock. Of all the problems I was prepared to face with cancer and lupus, I never for a moment considered obesity. It didn't seem fair. Weren't two illnesses enough?

I couldn't cope with the weight gain, so I tried to stop the Elavil four times in the past year. My symptoms of fatigue and pain returned so quickly that I spend most of my time in bed--precious, valuable time.

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