The Science of Skin: A Journey of Hope and Home

This post, and my travel to the event, was sponsored by AbbVie Inc. Personal opinions and thoughts are my own.

Standing next to my poster at The Science of Skin, NYC

I rushed into the Whitby Hotel in New York City feeling late to The Science of Skin educational event. The stress of navigating a new city amped up my heart rate. I had traveled across the country and didn’t want to miss a beat. 

As I descended the stairs to The Reading Room, I felt transported to a familiar space. I first saw a picture of myself on a poster with a quotation about why I started blogging about psoriasis. Walking in further, I greeted new and old friends.

Indeed, The Reading Room became a special place for those few hours. I might characterize it as a safe place, but it was more than that. I not only learned from doctors and heard fellow patients transparently share their experiences with chronic skin conditions, but I also reflected on my own psoriasis journey.

A Student’s Attitude Toward Psoriasis

Since my diagnosis, my understanding of psoriasis has grown as I have taken the initiative to learn and read about the disease, its causes and the treatment landscape. I don’t claim to know it all, as information and treatments continue to evolve, so I always look forward to opportunities to be a student of psoriasis, which this event afforded.

The Whitby Hotel Reading Room, NYC

During the panel discussion about psoriasis, I recalled instances of people who told me flatly that psoriasis is just a rash. Over 40 years of living with this disease, I’ve seen the science prove them wrong. Now we know that psoriasis is a chronic disease linked to many factors, including an overactive immune system.

When I see those red plaques and lesions on my skin, I now know I’m seeing inflammation that is forcing my body to produce skin cells at a much faster rate than normal. Instead of a 28-day skin cycle, psoriatic skin produces new skin cells in a four to five-day cycle. That faster skin production leads to thickening of the skin as cells build up on the surface. Those skin cells then become the flaky scales and plaques that get all over my bedsheets, clothes, and floor.

In addition to discussing the science behind psoriasis, the dermatologists at the event also addressed other areas of psoriasis research. One even talked about how knowledge gained from developing psoriasis treatments is now helping researchers to develop treatments for other conditions. 

Coming to Terms, Again, With Psoriasis’s Impact on My Life

The Science of Skin event turned out to be more than just a scientific presentation of psoriasis and other chronic skin conditions, but rather, a look at the whole person. The discussions helped me realize that I’m not always as willing to acknowledge the deep impact of the disease on my daily life as I think I am.

I usually wonder if my skin will worsen with the stress of travel. This time I did feel a bit of skin discomfort, but when people asked how I was doing I quickly said “fine.” When speakers started talking about the isolation and shame that some living with chronic skin conditions can experience, I felt challenged once again to stop hiding the impact of psoriasis on my life.

Wonderful seeing Nitika Chopra who presented her experience with psoriasis

A survey conducted by the National Psoriasis Foundation that found 87% of psoriasis patients feel helpless and embarrassed, and 88% believe that psoriasis affects their overall emotional wellbeing, really resonated with me. Psoriasis has never been just skin deep for me, and now I have stats to back it up. The presenters emphasized the physical, psychological, emotional, and social impacts that can come with a visible skin condition—all of which I can attest to in my own experience. 

At the same time, I was glad to hear one dermatologist’s observation of how the psoriasis patient community’s mood has turned more positive as more effective treatments have become available. I’ve experienced that transformation in my life, and the last decade has been the most productive for my advocacy, work, and education. I didn’t settle for “good enough” and asked for more when it came to my psoriasis care. 

Now I want other patients to feel empowered to have an honest discussion with their dermatologists about their treatment goals for achieving clearer skin. As I grew in sharing with my dermatologists how I’m really feeling and thinking, I found myself more involved and satisfied with the decisions that were made for my psoriasis care.

As The Science of Skin event ended, I looked back at The Reading Room one last time.  The event marked a moment where I felt hope again for people living with psoriasis. I confidently stepped back into the city feeling that I could move forward in my journey with psoriasis as I turned toward home.

DisclosureThis post, and my travel to the event, was sponsored by AbbVie Inc., a biopharmaceutical company, and should not be construed to constitute medical advice. Personal opinions and thoughts are my own. I am not a medical professional and am not qualified to give medical advice. Please talk with your doctor about your individual medical situation. 

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Why I Hate Asking for Help

This past week the pain in my shoulder landed on the chart somewhere between five and seven out of ten. I injured it in my exuberance to load my daughter’s new bicycle into the back of the CR-V. It’s nothing critical, but annoying enough that I can’t lift at certain angles or rotate in a full range of motion.

The primary impact of this pain in the shoulder is my inability to reach the upper middle part of my back. I normally stretch my arm to apply topical medications and moisturizers to those harder to reach spots. The psoriasis doesn’t pop out there as much, but recently my atopic dermatitis flared everywhere with the cold, winter-like weather here in Northern California.

Each morning and evening when I apply topicals I need to decide whether I will try to reach those spots myself or not.

I’m Going to Do it Myself

My attitude the entire week is to take care of myself—injury or not. In fact, I don’t want, or need, help.  The first couple times I tried to reach my upper back I winced. The next time, after sleeping on that shoulder, I yelped. I exacerbated the injury each time, too, which made me feel stupid and foolish.

One time I felt so much agony that I did ask my wife to apply moisturizer to my back. As she pulled her hand out of the jar of Cetaphil cream I immediately knew she had too much. Decades of applying creams trained me to extract just the right amount of cream or ointment for the skin surface area in question.

As an amateur she could not possibly know how much the skin on my back needed. But that was way too much. I thanked Lori. Then, once she left the room, quickly grabbed a towel to wipe off the excess moisturizer. My skin still felt greasy and uncomfortable after toweling it off a few times.

I determined to not ask her again.

Is There Another Way?

Last night my back became quite itchy with eczema rashes. I longed for a back scratcher but could not find one. I figured the primates at the zoo scratch each other’s backs, so I should at least see if Lori would scratch my back. But, alas, she fell fast asleep on the couch. I desperately needed to improvise.

The thirty-gram tube of hydrocortisone looked enticing. It gave me an extra few inches reach and had a not-too-sharp edge at the bottom. Like Job from the Bible scraping his boils with pottery shards, I soothed the itch on my upper back with that corner edge. Looking around to see if anyone observed my crude scratching technique, I put it down pretending like nothing happened.

My mind them began to brainstorm ways I could put medication and moisturizers on my back. I wondered aloud if anyone invented such a tool, and that if they had not, that maybe I could invent it. I thought, even without an injured shoulder, some people might not have the necessary flexibility and reach.

I’m still working on the perfect invention. If you know of some similar contraption let me know!

My Independent Streak Begins

Hurting my shoulder made it clear to me why I hate asking for help: pride and independence. I help others for a living as a pastor, husband, father, and friend. People message or call me to talk about or help solve problems. Mutual support is okay, but I believe that if you can do something yourself, then you absolutely should.

My streak of independence no doubt comes partly from necessity and parental training. My parents literally worked night and day to make ends meet as immigrants from China/Taiwan. My dad worked as an engineer in the day, then went to my mom’s small retail gift boutique in the evening to help with the family business. Mom worked seven days a week at “the store” for the better part of a decade after I started kindergarten.

As a latchkey kid I largely took care of myself, including applying my own medications. Back then, as an elementary student, I applied mild topical steroids and 2% LCD coal tar in Aquaphor on my psoriasis. My dad even taught me how to order medication by calling the pharmacy, and let me pick them up at the counter as he stood by to pay.

My strong sense of pride also derived from my desire to prove to others and myself that, despite having chronic illnesses, I could achieve great things with minimal support. I pride myself in hard work and perseverance no matter the obstacle. I earned good grades, and later advanced degrees, through consistency and determination.

This bum left shoulder, though, humbles me every time I need to reach those few square inches on my back.

Fine, I’ll Ask for Help

Now I’m determined to stop reinjuring my shoulder by overstretching its current limits. It needs rest, and it needs to heal. So, somewhat less reluctantly, I will ask my wife again for help after I take my shower.

The pain in my shoulder is a metaphor for life. Asking for help often connotes weakness, and no one wants to admit they are weak. Knowing when I need help, however, is true wisdom. Asking for support, while humbling, can lead to the greater good of intimacy through vulnerability. Reciprocity, when not demanded, becomes mutual care.

I also recognize I lose something when I don’t ask for help when I really do need it: the opportunity to connect on a deeper level with others. Sure I can do a lot by myself. But I lose out on sharing moments of triumph and loss, of joy and sorrow, and of journeyingup the tall mountain of life’s challenging peaks with friends who care.

Inspirational Verse: Galatians 6:2

Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.

An Almost Disastrous First Dermatology Visit

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The empty lobby at the dermatology clinic at lunch time left me feeling quite anxious after I missed my 11:30 a.m. appointment, which I thought was at 1:30 p.m.

Wednesday morning started out quietly enough. I took the morning to rest as I had to work on my Monday day off. I looked forward to my first dermatology appointment at 1:30 p.m. I drove into town around 12:30 to give myself plenty of time. Then it dawned on me.

My dermatology appointment was at 11:30 a.m., not 1:30 p.m.

After double checking my calendar I decided to drive straight to the clinic. Even though the door was unlocked, I only found an “out to lunch” sign on the counter. A call to the scheduling center confirmed I missed my appointment. I’d waited over two months for this visit. Now I found myself one hour late to it.

The scheduler on the phone told me I could take the next available appointment with the dermatologist on May 8th, or with her colleague on May 2nd. She also gave me the option to stay in the clinic office until the staff returned from lunch. I opted for the latter.

As I waited all I could think about is what a disaster the first visit is turning out to be. Being late meant possibly not seeing the new dermatologist for weeks. One little mistake could mushroom into huge consequences for all my treatments.

As I waited all I could think about is what a disaster the first visit is turning out to be. Being late meant possibly not seeing the new dermatologist for weeks.

Awkward Beginnings

Finally, someone returned to the office. I sheepishly asked if she had started working yet, and shared how I felt embarrassed about missing my 11:30 appointment. The receptionist said it was okay, and took my information down. She then asked me to wait until the medical staff returned.

Dr. C’s medical assistant returned and started looking into my situation. He said they could work me into her schedule, but I needed to wait there for up to two hours. Ironically, I ended up getting a 1:45 p.m. appointment, only 15 minutes later than what I first thought. Around 2:00 p.m. the medical assistant called me into the exam room.

I felt anxious changing to a new medical group and system. Right off I felt awkward when I tried to sit on the exam table and asked for a gown.

“On the first visit the doctor likes you to keep your clothes on and sit in the chair,” the assistant informed me. I thought it sounded like rules for a first date, but went with it.

I felt anxious changing to a new medical group and system. Right off I felt awkward when I tried to sit on the exam table and asked for a gown.

Next, he told me the doctor is using an exam recording device that transmits to the Dominican Republic. It apparently helps with documentation so the doctor doesn’t need to worry about writing notes later. I didn’t want to make a fuss on my first visit and told him it would be fine.

Dr. C. walked in a few minutes later. She told me right away that she didn’t have that much time for the visit since I was being squeezed into her schedule.

Having no time to waste, I quickly dove into all my dermatology concerns assuming she could keep up. Continue reading →

My Last Dermatology Visit: As Good as It Gets?

I couldn’t believe what I read in a letter dated November 21 from Western Health Advantage (WHA), my health insurance provided. They approved my continuation of care request for one more visit in December.

I’d already said goodbye to Dr. M and his team at the November appointment. With excitement, I called the Dermatology department to book my last dermatology visit at UC Davis Health. “I’m sorry Mr. Chang,” she flatly said, “Dr. Maverakis does not have any open appointments for the rest of the year.”

Getting that Elusive Last Appointment

What? After waiting weeks to hear back from WHA I now faced denial at the dermatology office? “You can call back as many times as you want to check for cancelled appointments,” the receptionist told me. They don’t keep a waiting list, but would be fine if I called ad infinitum.

So, I called back a few days later. No appointments still. Another call revealed that the university holidays on the last two weeks of the month hurt my chances of landing that coveted appointment. Then I called WHA about extending the continuation of care. Let’s just say that 45-minute phone call made me want to call back UC Davis to get an appointment in December.

Finally, the receptionist took pity on me. He said he would write my name and number down and give me any cancellations that arose. Sure enough, within a few hours, I booked a 9:15 a.m. on Friday morning, December 15th. Why couldn’t he do that from the start? Anyhow, I felt grateful to have the appointment no matter how I got it.

With this health care system, I’m guessing this is as good as it gets.

Assessing my Skin Concerns

Dr. M understandably wants me to taper completely off of cyclosporine. Tremfya (guselkumabis the key treatment we looked to replace it. This visit happened to coincide with my 17th week on the new biologic.

Check out the new Treatments Tried section with a list of Tremfya blogs.

How would he assess my psoriasis and eczema after using it for four months?

Continue reading →

Exercising Again & My Heart Loves It

My running shoes started getting more use recently with interval workouts in the neighborhood.

Since around Thanksgiving I started exercising regularly again. That’s when I bought my first Apple Watch with great workout tracking features, including GPS. I never liked running with my phone. A sad excuse for not exercising.

I hate to admit that I let my body go with bad health habits. I didn’t just stop exercising regularly, I slept too late and too little, and ate too much fast and junk food. Over time I noticed the effects–rising blood pressure, weight gain, moodiness, lack of energy, and disliking myself.

I’m still not sure if psoriasis improves with exercise, as I used to be fit while still with flaring psoriasis. But when I went to the AAD medical meeting, I received a healthy dose of motivation to revive healthy habits. I’m at the age where my heart and overall health starts to go, and psoriasis doesn’t help with the attendant inflammation. More and more studies show the impact of severe psoriasis on lifespan too–up to five years. That’s sobering.

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Apple Watch Activity Levels March 2017

After the AAD meeting I started running intervals about every other day. Not soon after, my daughter Lydia started running intervals with me. On off days I go for a walk, use the rowing machine at a slow pace for about 20 minutes, or take a rest day.

The screen shot shows my Apple Watch Activity levels for March 2017–closed circles show progress and daily goals reached. The outer circle measures calories burned (current goal 500 calories), the middle exercise minutes (set by Apple for 30 minutes), and the inner circle highlights hours standing with a daily goal of 12 hours. Overall it’s the best month I’ve had, with 15 workouts recorded.

Here’s the interval workout routine:

  1. Stretch and use inhaler (for asthma)
  2. Slow jog one minute, then fast walk for a minute and a half
  3. Start around 9-10 intervals of running for one minute (~6:30-7:30 min/mile pace), then resting for 1:30-2:00
  4. Cool down with final slow jog, 5-10 minute walk, and stretching

Overall the workout takes about 35 minutes–up to an hour with stretching and walking.

I now sleep with my Apple Watch and can look at my sleeping habits and quality. My resting heart rate is the best sign that my workouts are improving my heart health. Over the past month it dropped ten beats per minute. My blood pressure also dropped down into normal range.

My body and heart love the exercise–and just maybe I’ll need less medication to control my psoriasis too if there’s less inflammation in my body overall. That’s the hope.

For more on exercise and psoriasis, check out my recent Everyday Health column Get Off the Couch! Exercise Can Help Your Psoriasis.