The first time my doctor mentioned trying a biologic medication, I have to admit I was pretty hesitant. The biologic he wanted me to try was given via infusion, and it was a bit scary to think about sitting in a hospital infusion center next to people getting chemotherapy for cancer – was I really so sick at only 25 years old? The list of risks and potential side effects was also pretty alarming. And when I found out how much my co-pay would be I nearly fell on the floor. On the other hand, I had been taking prednisone and methotrexate for months and months without success, and I was falling behind in my law school classes. I wanted so badly for the pain to stop – or even just ease a little bit – so I could get back to living my life.
Getting used to the needle
Today, getting an infusion or stabbing myself with a needle seems perfectly ordinary, and I honestly couldn’t imagine my life without the benefit of biologic medications. But my initial reaction to taking this step in treating my RA was not an unusual one. I’ve spoken to countless patients living with RA who also feel reluctant or nervous about trying a biologic for the first time. So, after nearly ten years of experience with these medications, I want to share the impact biologic medications have had on my life.
How do biologics function
Biologic medications function differently from other medications used to treat RA. Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs), like plaquenil or methotrexate, try to slow the progression of RA by generally suppressing your immune system to get it to stop attacking your joints. Biologics are a more targeted approach, designed to inhibit specific components of your immune system that play pivotal roles in causing inflammation. They are often used in combination with traditional DMARDs, and since their introduction they have revolutionized the treatment of RA.
Prior to taking my first biologic medication, my RA was very severe. I had pain in virtually every joint in my body and I was completely exhausted no matter how much I slept. My knees were so swollen and painful that I could hardly stand or walk. Everyday tasks – getting out of bed, brushing my teeth, cooking a meal – felt nearly impossible. I thought about everything I wanted to do with the rest of my life – graduate, get married, start a family, start a career – and I was absolutely terrified about how my diagnosis would affect my future.
Since I started taking a biologic medication, I’ve graduated with a law degree and a masters in environmental policy. While RA has forced me to make some difficult choices concerning my career, I’ve just finished co-authoring a textbook on international environmental law.
I’ve traveled to Australia and lived for a month in a campervan – with my biologic medication carefully on ice the whole time. I got engaged on that trip, and I did worry about the impact RA might have on my wedding day. Shortly after being diagnosed I remember reading an article that said “sometimes having arthritis means sitting on the sidelines while others dance at a wedding,” and I remember thinking: what if it’s my wedding? But with the help of my biologic medication I was able to dance my wedding night away.
Using a biologic medication to control my RA was also essential for keeping my pain in check so I could get pregnant and start my family. I even relied on the help of a biologic medication to manage a terrible flare during my second pregnancy. Now that I’m a mom of two highly energetic little boys under the age of 5, I depend on my biologic medication daily to keep up with my kids!
And while my inner athlete was missing from my life for so many years after my diagnosis, last year I was able to ride my bike in the Arthritis Foundation’s California Coast Classic. The ride, which is a fundraiser to send kids living with juvenile arthritis to camp, goes from San Francisco to Los Angeles – and I rode every mile of the first 400 miles, which never would have been possible without a working biologic medication.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that biologic medications have given me my life back. These medications turned a life-altering diagnosis into a challenge to be conquered, rather than the end of the world. Biologics have allowed me to reach important goals and continue pursuing my dreams. So I want to offer my sincere gratitude that I’ve had access to these innovative medications. And while I can completely understand feeling uncertain about biologics, I hope my experience shows what a positive impact the right biologic medication can have.