Actress Selena Gomez should still be able to have a successful career, in spite of having lupus, experts say.
Gomez, 23, told Billboard that she has been undergoing chemotherapy for lupus. While lupus is a serious disease, treatment can often keep it under control, allowing people to continue their careers, said physician Gary Gilkeson, chair of the Lupus Foundation of America‘s medical scientific advisory council.
“Her career is not over by any stretch of the imagination,” said Gilkeson, who has no personal knowledge of Gomez’s case.
Doctors and patients talked about the disease – and prognosis for young women such as Gomez – with USA TODAY.
- What is lupus?
- Lupus is a chronic disease in which a person’s body is attacked by the immune system, which normally fights infections and foreign invaders, such as viruses and bacteria, said Gilkeson, a professor of medicine at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. Lupus can cause a variety of symptoms, including severe fatigue, headaches, painful or swollen joints, fever, swelling in the hands or ankles, a butterfly-shaped rash across the nose and cheeks, sensitivity to light, mouth and nose ulcers, anemia and hair loss.
For reasons that doctors still don’t understand, the immune system sometimes becomes confused, attacking the body itself, a condition known as autoimmune disease. With lupus,the immune system can attack any organ of the body, including the kidneys and brain, although skin and joints are often most affected, he said. Like many autoimmune diseases, it’s more common in women.
- Is it rare for someone so young to be diagnosed with lupus?
- No. Lupus is “all too common” in women Gomez’s age, Gilkeson said. The disease is most common in women in their child-bearing years – from adolescence up until menopause. It’s also more common in minorities, such as Hispanics and African-Americans, than in whites or Asians.
- How serious is lupus?
- Lupus can vary from a moderately disabling disease to a life-threatening one. Because it can lead to cardiovascular disease, lupus can kill women in their 20s by causing heart attacks and strokes, Gilkeson said. People with lupus also can die at young ages due to infections that are related to the immune-suppressing drugs taken to control the disease. Although lupus doesn’t make it harder to become pregnant, women with lupus are more likely to miscarry.
- How is lupus treated?
- Like Gomez, people with lupus often begin chemotherapy, which helps to suppress the immune system. Gomez has said that she is in remission, which means her disease is not causing her any symptoms. With luck, these remissions can last for years. But about 25% of people with lupus a year experience a “flare,” in which symptoms recur. To keep the disease under control, people with lupus need to be treated for the rest of their lives. Most take a drug called hydroxychloroquine, which is also used to fight malaria. People also usually take an immune-suppressing drug, Gilkeson said.
- How serious are side effects from treatment?
- Chemotherapy can cause a variety of difficult side effects, such as nausea and vomiting. But the chemo drugs used to treat lupus are often gentler than those used to treat cancer, so the side effects aren’t as severe. But any type of chemo can harm a woman’s fertility by putting her in early menopause, Gilkeson said. While cancer patients sometimes bank their sperm or eggs in order to preserve their future fertility, people with lupus may not have this option, because doctors often want to begin chemo as quickly as possible.
- What is the effect of a celebrity like Gomez going public about her lupus?
- “It’s brave any time that anyone comes out and acknowledges they have a disease,” Gilkeson said. “It helps tremendously with helping people become aware of the disease and in terms of making them want to know more about it. That knowledge then allows them to support different research foundations.”
According to the Lupus Foundation of America, 1.5 million Americans have been diagnosed with the condition, with 16,000 new cases every year. But relatively few young people are familiar with the disease, said Josie Pearce, 17, who was diagnosed with lupus two years ago. She said she appreciates Gomez’s help educating people about the disease.
“A lot of people have no clue what I’m talking about when I tell them I have lupus,” said Pearce, of Orange County, Calif. “I have to do a lot of explaining.”
Pearce hopes Gomez’s public announcement will help people to be more understanding.
“It will make it easier for me and young girls who struggle with this on a daily basis,” Pearce said. “When a public figure comes out and says, “I suffer from this,’ it makes the disease more relatable.”