What is lupus?

Mysterious disease affects thousands of Houstonians

It can start innocently; as a headache or a sudden feeling of fatigue. Before you know it, joints begin to hurt and the sun never seemed so bright. These are just a few symptoms of Lupus.

The painfully cruel and mysterious auto-immune disease is getting some much-needed attention after the death of Sasha McHale, the 23 year-old daughter of Houston Rockets Head Coach Kevin McHale.

When she died Saturday, many people were left wondering - What is Lupus?

"It's when your own immune system attacks the body," Houston-based Rheumatologist Dr. Francis Williams explained. "Depending on which part of the body, it can be the skin, the heart, the lungs, the kidneys, It can be relatively minor to very serious."

And in some cases, deadly.

"The hardest thing (about Lupus) is that it's invisible," Dixie Swanson said. "If you look at me, you'd think I was perfectly well."

Dixie Swanson was a pediatrician and a Local 2 Health Reporter in 1992, when one day she started feeling unusually fatigued.

"And I was having pain all over my body," Swanson said. "Various joints would hurt and I thought, 'That was strange.' As things began to add up, I went to see a rheumatologist and she diagnosed me. Lupus rather rudely yanked me out of my life."

Lupus ultimately ended Swanson's medical and television career, but not her life. Twenty years after her diagnosis, Swanson is now an author and advocate of Lupus awareness.

"Not many people know about Lupus," Swanson said. "And if they do, they have a very vague idea of what it is because it's kind of a vague illness."

A recent survey conducted by the Lupus Foundation of America showed that Lupus awareness is lowest in the age group of 18 to 34, the highest risk for the disease.

It affects about 1.5 million people, mostly those with darker colored skin but almost always (90%) women between the ages of 15-44. In Houston, more than 30,000 people are affected by the non-contagious yet incurable disease.

Although Sasha McHale's death is extremely tragic, it has raised awareness. Since news of her death, Lupus Foundation of America officials said traffic on its website has more than doubled.

For more information on Lupus, visit www.lupus.org For more information about Dixie Swanson and her work, visit www.dixieswanson.com.

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