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My Turn: Psoriasis is worse than just an itchy rash

When the disease is at its worse, one of the hardest parts is living with the loss of self-esteem.

April 11, 2011|Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Alex Bender plans to join the National Psoriasis Foundation's 2011 Walk to Cure Psoriasis in Santa Monica on April 30.
Alex Bender plans to join the National Psoriasis Foundation's 2011… (Chris O'Mahony )

It was my freshman year of college, and my expectations were being met — college was turning out to be the best time of my life — until I developed psoriasis.

For spring break, I went to New Orleans to help rebuild homes, but when I returned, I had an itchy rash on my chest and neck. I didn't think much about it, figuring that maybe I'd picked up something in Louisiana.

I tried over-the-counter cortisone cream for the itching, but practically overnight the rash grew and covered most of my chest, neck and jaw. Campus health services diagnosed the rash as psoriasis — and my life would change forever. I had no idea what psoriasis was, or even how to spell it, but I knew it was serious.

I tried several creams and lotions, none of which provided significant relief, though they did allow me to make it through most of the night without scratching myself to death. I hoped that once the stress of finals was over and I returned home for the summer, the itching and pain would subside, but I couldn't have been more wrong. The rash quickly spread to over 30% of my body, including my entire scalp and onto my face, the last place you want psoriasis. One of my "kinder" friends asked, "What happened to your face?" My confidence was crushed, and I spent much of that summer alone.

I originally thought psoriasis was only a skin issue, but after researching it, I learned that it's a non-contagious, lifelong autoimmune disease that affects nearly 125 million people worldwide. It causes painful, red lesions on your skin covered by a flaky, white buildup of dead skin cells that is extremely painful and, frankly, pretty darn ugly. As I type this, I itch just thinking about it.

I also learned that between 10% and 30% of people with psoriasis develop psoriatic arthritis, which is inflammation and swelling, most commonly in the fingers and joints. This can be very disabling (golfer Phil Mickelson was recently diagnosed). The scariest part is that we also have an increased risk for other debilitating diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer and depression.

I suffered the pain, discomfort and embarrassment of psoriasis, as well as the isolation and depression that accompanies it. Fortunately, I was able to get into a clinical trial of a non-FDA-approved injected drug. The medication suppresses the immune system, making it less overactive and creating less inflammation. The treatment is working, and I am grateful that I have not had a significant outbreak in almost three years.

The thing about psoriasis is that you really don't have any idea how awful it is until you get it. The constant itching and grotesque appearance are tragic products of this disease, but the worst part, by a mile, is what psoriasis does to your self-esteem. I remember the summer before I got on the medication, I was walking my dogs by some girls my age. I'll never forget the look of disgust they gave me as they stared at the outbreaks. Being a 19-year-old guy, it was the last thing I needed.

Through my experience with psoriasis, I learned to appreciate the little things. One doesn't realize how convenient it is living with clear and itch-free skin until it's quickly taken away.

Bender, a senior at UC Santa Barbara, lives in Goleta, Calif. On April 30, he, along with his family and friends, will be participating in one of the National Psoriasis Foundation's 2011 Walk to Cure Psoriasis events, in Santa Monica. For more information about the disease and the walks, please go to http://www.psoriasis.org.

My Turn is a forum for readers to recount an experience related to health or fitness. Submissions should be no more than 500 words. They are subject to editing and condensation and become the property of The Times. Please email health@latimes.com. We read every essay but can't respond to every writer.

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