I’ve never been entirely sure how tall my paternal grandmother was at different times in her life. By the time that I knew her she was already in her seventies and had a very pronounced hump on her back caused from a serious case of osteoporosis. At that moment her height was under five feet, but her body had been so twisted by her disease that I suspected that she might have once been taller. She always used to tell me that I was exactly like her, and as I have aged I have begun to believe that she was absolutely correct. I seem to not only resemble her in appearance, but also am inclined toward many of her health problems. I’m bolstered by the knowledge that she was a high energy woman until shortly before her death at the age of eighty eight, and even that might have been prevented until a later time had she paid more attention to the symptoms of cancer that were slowly stealing away her life.
My mother had three sisters all of whom suffer with problems from osteoporosis. One has been wheelchair bound for many years, another has had major hip surgeries and walks with a cane. The third one does a bit better, but still has all of the symptoms of the disease that destroys bones. Only my mother was never diagnosed with osteoporosis, and her body structure was very different from that of her sisters who tended to be taller and leaner. Since I have always been shaped more like my aunts than my mother I assumed that perhaps I might carry more of their genetic tendencies. This combined with my strong connection to my grandmother made me wonder if I too would one day be afflicted with the same bone destroying disease that they all had.
I began worrying when I was in my late thirties when I noticed that my back began to curve just a bit. I talked about my concerns with my doctors, but they assured me that I was way too young to worry about such things, and they also noted that my health insurance would be unlikely to cover the cost of a bone scan simply because I had a family history of the disease. They urged me to be patient and wait until I was of an age more suitable for thinking of such things. It was not until was in my late forties that I relayed my fears to a new gynecologist who took over for my doctor who had retired. He found a way to get a bone scan for me, but he also insisted that I was probably more worried than I needed to be. The images proved him wrong. I already had a great deal of deterioration that was abnormal for my age. The doctor insisted that I take a high dose of calcium each day and eat foods that might increase my daily intake of that vitamin. Since women are only allowed to get a bone scan every two years it was going to be a while before I would learn whether or not my situation had improved with my new regimen.
The next scan showed even more problems, so the doctor prescribed the drug Fosamax which was a frightening experience because I was told that if it got stuck in my esophagus it might do permanent damage. Because I have a naturally occurring narrowing of that area I often begin to choke on pills and some foods. I literally held my breath and prayed to God each Saturday when I attempted to swallow the medication for my osteoporosis. Luckily I never once had a bad reaction, but I nonetheless had to wait another two years to find out if I was doing any better.
When it came time for me to get another bone scan my doctor referred me to an osteoporosis specialist who put me through a battery of different tests. At the end of the process he announced to me that I was doing great and didn’t even have osteoporosis anymore. It seemed almost too good to be true, but he insisted that I was in great shape. In spite of his reassurances I was not convinced because my body seemed to be slowly changing, and when I mentioned this to him or any of my doctors they essentially suggested that I was being silly, insisting that I looked just fine. I kept taking my calcium and my Fosamax and hoping that they were right and I was wrong.
I was already in my sixties before I found a great Primary Care Physician who takes everything that I say quite seriously. When I told him that I was becoming as bowed as my grandmother had been he studied my stance carefully and ordered a number of tests, among which was another bone scan. He found that my bones were in a fragile state, and told me that I still clearly had osteoporosis. He also noted that I have scoliosis and wondered why nobody at any point in my life had suggested some form of therapy. I cried when I learned that I was no longer five feet six and a half inches tall, but rather only five foot four. He felt that the problems that I have with my knees were an outgrowth of my changing skeletal structure and told me that my legs have bowed because my body is compensating. He also assured me that I was not crazy in thinking that I had somehow lost my formerly long thin waist because my spine had collapsed. He not only took the time to listen to me, but he also agreed that my body had indeed changed dramatically, and he set about crafting a plan for me. It was the first time ever that I felt as though someone considered my worries to be important. He also assured me that my fear of ingesting Fosamax was exactly right.
For two years now I have injected Forteo under my skin in the hopes that the drug will rebuild my bones. I have taken my little injection pen and needles everywhere that I have gone, and I suppose that I will soon find out how effective the medication has been. My doctor has guided me in diet and exercise as well. In fact he is my conscience when it comes to religiously performing the weight bearing routines that are even more important than the medication in building bones that will keep me strong. My appearance is what it is, however. I will not grow tall again nor will the bend in my back become erect. I might make my legs stronger which will somewhat help the bow in them, but essentially the way I appear now will be the way I will always be, and it saddens me that I was ignored for so very long. Perhaps I need not have endured most of the problems that I have had.
I’m not a whiney woman, nor do I generally complain about my status vis a vis that of a man, but I do believe that there are times when simply by dent of my sex I have been ignored. I definitely think that my concerns about having osteoporosis went unanswered for so long because to my doctors I sounded a bit hysterical in my belief that I was following in the footsteps of my elders and doing so at a relatively early age. I didn’t help my case by mentioning that some of my female friends were also worried about the way they observed me carrying myself. They pushed me to speak with my doctors, and weren’t satisfied when I told them about the reactions that I had received. I was caught in the age old trap of males thinking that women sometimes overreact. I was patted on my little head and sent away because they felt that they were dealing with far more serious problems. Now I am older and more likely to struggle with this disease and its devastating effects for years to come. Had more been done when I was younger I might not have become so deformed.
All of my aunts are clear headed and healthy save for their osteoporosis which has forced them to live in assisted living and nursing homes in their twilight years. They have endured painful operations and rehabilitations and have seen their independence dwindle because of the same disease that I have. They fight with all of their might, but like me their own conditions were not diagnosed until they were older and their symptoms had grown.
There are things that every woman might do to prevent their bones from becoming brittle and eroded like swiss cheese. From an early age weight bearing and resistance exercises as well as a healthy diet are essential at least three to five days a week. Joining a gym or the YMCA is an investment whose worth can’t be measured. Eating green vegetables and other sources of calcium every single day is a must. It’s never too early to have regular physical checkups and to discuss any concerns about body changes with a doctor. If the physician doesn’t seem to be listening, then go to someone else. Talk with family members about their own medical histories. The apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree, and genetics play a huge role in our overall health. Mostly, no woman should be afraid to take charge of her situation. Each person knows better than anyone how they feel. Those instincts are usually right on target.