“At Least It’s Not Cancer”

There are so many things that those of us living with RA hear all the time. Sometimes we hear “you are too young to have arthritis!” or “my grandmother has arthritis too!” or “I have that in my pinky finger!” Other times we hear “but you don’t look sick!” or we get advice to try a particular diet or supplement or lifestyle change that will “cure” our arthritis. But after reading the comments on my recent post, 8 Things Not To Say to Someone Living With RA, I think there may be a big one that I missed:

“At least it’s not cancer.”

I don’t think anyone has ever said this directly to me – but many of the people who commented on my original post mentioned having it said to them. Or they’ve heard something like “at least it’s nothing serious” or “at least it’s not life threatening.” And I know that even if people aren’t saying things like this out loud, there are a lot of people out there who think that having rheumatoid arthritis just isn’t that serious.

On the one hand, I have to admit that I wholeheartedly agree. Yes. At least it’s not cancer. Cancer is scary. Cancer is serious. Cancer is known to be life threatening and very difficult to treat. I am, in fact, very glad that I do not have cancer.


On the other hand, I think comments like these unfairly downplay the seriousness of rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune diseases. While it is true that these diseases are generally not considered to be fatal or terminal, that does not in any way mean that they are not serious.

Most autoimmune diseases are chronic, which means that patients will have to deal with symptoms and effects of the disease for the duration of their lives. For example, there is no cure for rheumatoid arthritis, so those of us who have been diagnosed with it will have to live with the consequences for the rest of our lives. The chronic nature of autoimmune diseases is one of the reasons that they are often linked to a higher risk of complications ­– and these complications can, unfortunately, sometimes be fatal.

This issue was recently brought to light in the news with the announcement of the passing of Harold Ramis, the an actor who played roles in Ghostbusters and Stripes and directed Caddyshack, National Lampoon’s Vacation, Groundhog Day, and Analyze This. Ramis had autoimmune inflammatory vasculitis, a disease in which his immune system attacked his blood vessels causing inflammation (somewhat similar to the way a person’s immune system attacks their joints causing inflammation when they have rheumatoid arthritis). But although Ramis suffered from this autoimmune disease, his cause of death is listed as complications from his condition. He was only 69 years old.

I have also come across the seriousness of autoimmune diseases in my personal life. Last September I volunteered as support staff on the Arthritis Foundation’s California Coast Classic – a 525-mile bike ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles. The cyclists who participated worked hard to raise funds to provide educational resources for people living with arthritis, scholarships to send kids to the national Juvenile Arthritis Conference, funding for juvenile arthritis camps, and more. Being involved with the ride was an amazing experience and I had the opportunity to hear so many stories about how arthritis impacts people’s lives. But perhaps the most powerful story I heard was from a couple that does the ride every year in honor of their daughter. Their daughter, who suffered from juvenile arthritis, passed away due to complications a few years ago. She was only ten.

I’m not saying that we should necessarily dwell on these sad and scary realities about autoimmune diseases. But I do think there is something we can learn from these stories. While better treatments are being researched every day that will improve the future prognosis for those of us living with autoimmune conditions, I still think it is really important to recognize that these conditions should not be taken lightly. Autoimmune conditions, like RA, can be very serious. And, unfortunately, sometimes they can lead to complications that can be life threatening or fatal.

Of course I am glad that I do not have cancer. But, if I had my choice in the matter, I wouldn’t want to have rheumatoid arthritis either!

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